Why I brought back the foreign language lesson to the CELTA

Many Celta trainers I know have taken the foreign language class out of their Celta timetables in favour of other more ‘practical’ input sessions such as classroom management. But looking back at the times when I was training up to be a teacher, I realised how some of the most valuable lessons I had learnt have come from those demo foreign language lesson and decided to give it top priority by dedicating a good 60 minutes to it on Day 1.

But before looking at the reasons why I’ve chosen to do so, let me first outline the foreign language lesson that I usually deliver. And for those teacher trainers out there who claim not to speak a foreign language, I hope this brief lesson plan would serve to reassure you that you do not need to speak a foreign language well to carry this out.

I usually do the foreign language lesson in either Chinese or Japanese, depending on the profiles of the candidates. Evidently, I’d choose the language that trainees are most unfamiliar with.

Materials: 6 items of realia – A box of English tea, a tin of green tea, a bottle of milk, a jar of coffee, a can of Coca Cola and a bottle of mineral water.

Procedure: I greet the students in the foreign language, and set out the items on the table. I start with one item, say, the English tea, modelling, drilling chorally and then individually. I then do the same with the second item, the green tea, before moving back to the English tea and the green tea again. Every time I introduce a new lexical item, I go back and drill those that I had done previously.

When the six items are drilled sufficiently, I draw a chair and a table on the board with a customer sitting and a waiter standing. Because my drawing abilities are so bad, I mime the waiter with my scarf over my arm just to ensure understanding of the context. I then mime the following dialogue line by line, but with the introduction of each line, I drill the phrase and everything I covered before.

Waiter: Hello

Customer: Hello

Waiter: What would you like?

Customer: I would like some English tea/coffee/water/etc…

In pairs, students role-play the dialogue with the help of the dialogue written on the board.

I then add  the rest of the dialogue.

Waiter: Would you like anything else?

Customer: I would also like some milk/Coca Cola/ etc…Thank you.

Waiter: Thank you.

Again, in pairs, the students role-play the dialogue. Just before they swap roles, I erase the dialogue off the board and have students do the role-play from memory.

At the end of the demo, the trainees discuss what they think each phrase from the dialogue meant in English and how they felt during the lesson.

During feedback, I take the opportunities to unpack the stages of drilling (model, choral, inidividual) and get them to notice other features of the lesson e.g. my seating position during the lesson, how I monitored, the effectiveness of pairwork, etc.

But one could argue that these are features that could be highlighted in any demo and not necessary through a foreign language lesson, but here are some other points that I find the foreign language lesson making very effectively.

1. It’s scary being a learner. 

Some of my trainees have never had the experience of learning a foreign language before. But even those who have might need a reminder of how it feels to be a learner – After my foreign language lessons, trainees often say they felt insecure and anxious when placed in a situation where they couldn’t speak the language. It brings attention to how language is such a core tool of communication to the rest of the world that without access to it, they experience a sense of panic and a loss of control over their surroundings. Some are surprised at how it makes them feel like a child and are better able to relate to how the high status professionals might feel being taken far away from their comfort zone.

2. Context is everything.

Choosing to do my foreign language lesson as a situational presentation, trainees are able to deduce the meaning of the lexical phrases without the need for any translation. But more importantly, it is good chance to draw attention to the fact words and phrases are often remembered through the context they were encountered in and are not stored in the brain separately, but in clusters e.g. with other related lexis or in lexical sets. When attempting remember the lexis a few days later, trainees will quickly realise lexis is more easily retrieved when the words/phrases are given a context, ‘a place to belong to’.

3. Drilling isn’t boring… and it isn’t just about pronunciation.

The foreign language lesson is a good chance to introduce drilling, and to demonstrate the importance of drilling, not just for pronunciation practice, but for memory retention and getting their tongues round the language. Being on the receiving end can help trainees see that drilling is not boring for the learner at all, and is in fact confidence-building. It is often the teacher who feels bored because he/she already knows the language item well.

4. Pronouncing unfamiliar sounds in a foreign language can be frustrating.

Especially when trainees have not had the experience of learning another language, it might be hard to relate to how difficult it might be to first recognise and differentiate what might seem like similar sounds in one language but totally different phonemes in another, and then try to contort their muscles in strange ways to make sounds that don’t exist in their language. Repeated drills of more difficult sounds can drive that message home.

5. Language learning isn’t always about learning single words.

When covering the Lexical Approach and introducing language chunks like collocations later in the course, I refer to how they learnt the phrases in chunks during the foreign language lesson without necessary understanding what the individual words meant, and highlight the fact that it takes the brain the same amount of effort/energy to remember a chunk/phrase of words as it takes to remember a single word, and encourage trainees to present language in their chunks and collocations.

6. It can take multiple encounters with a language item before it is retained and produced.

Trainees get to have first-hand experience of how long it can take to remember a new lexical item and how quickly we can forget it. By asking trainees again a few days later for the lexical items they learnt (and having them admit they’ve forgotten quite a fair bit of it)demonstrates the difference between short-term and long-term memory and the importance of recycling language and how language acquisition is not a linear process. What is taught is not necessary learnt.

7. Don’t overwhelm learners with too much information at a go.

When trainees try to squeeze in too many language items into their 40-minute lessons, I often remind them of how many lexical items they covered in their foreign language class (6 nouns and 5 phrases) and how close to feeling overwhelmed they already were.

8. Don’t just say them, board those new lexical items.

Too often do I see trainees who attempt to deal with emergent language by simply telling the learners the word or phrase, and not actually bothering to write the words up on the board. This can be extremely frustrating for many learners who find it easier to process and to remember lexis when they can actually see how it’s written. This also gives learners a chance to copy the new lexis into their notebooks. In my foreign language lesson, trainees are drilled the lexical items first and are given the written forms much later. They often report feeling a sense of relief when they are able to see it written down. This is a feeling worth referring to in order to encourage the boarding of new lexis and keeping a column for emergent language on the board.

9. A tolerance for ambiguity is crucial to being a good language learner.

Trainees often see reading and listening texts as a mere conduit for new language and are often not aware of the different subskills and strategies used unconsciously when reading or listening in their first language. Very commonly, when reading for gist or specific information, trainees give their learners way too much time, resulting in the learner attempting to decipher every single word and feeling dejected when they encounter one or two unfamiliar words. Sometimes such a psychological block created by just a couple of words can lead to learners giving up and not feeling competent enough to carry on reading. This need to cling on to every single word and this intolerance of any ambiguity in the foreign language is a sense easily conveyed through the foreign language lesson. Trainees can then better understand the need to develop their learners’ tolerance of ambiguity and the importance of training train learners to skim and scan so as to enable the transfer of such skills from their L1.

10. This is what a beginner’s class looks like.

This is the only time they will see a beginner’s class. Arguably, when teaching English as a foreign language, there are very few real beginners, but nevertheless, learners will encounter elementary students when they go out into the ‘real world’ and need some idea how they might deal with teach the very basics, with the help of some realia and mime, while still maintaining a communicative approach in the classroom. Trainees get to see that it’s totally possible to teach such a low level class even when the teacher is unable to speak their learners’ L1.

Obviously, these points can still be made through the use of other demos and discussions, but aside from the fact that one demo conveniently embodies so many of the key issues surrounding language learning and acquisition, more importantly, I brought it back because I will never forget how much enjoyment we got out of the foreign language lesson back when I did my Celta.

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

23 thoughts on “Why I brought back the foreign language lesson to the CELTA”

  1. Great post! Now that I’m teaching, so many of these points ring home! I remember the Japanese and Chinese mini lessons you did for us and how eye-opening they were. I agree – they should bring this back into CELTA. The things I learnt from the course had only sunken when I started teaching and now I can appreciate even more of what you were trying to do. And thankfully, I have managed to remember and achieve or at least be aware about almost all of the points you’ve given in this post. The great thing is, these are just as relevant for group lessons as they are for one-to-one lessons.

  2. I absolutely agree with evèrything you say. My colleagues took the foreign language lesson off our Celta despite all my efforts at persuasion, and I think the course is the poorer for it. Most trainees always remember that lesson, and enjoy it as well as learning a lot from it. I still remember the Japanese lesson which was taught on my Celta in 1983!!

    All your points are good ones but what I think is possible the most useful is discoverring what it feels like to be a learner, something that, as you say, a lot of trtainees do not know, because they have no experience of learning another language, or may have forgotten. Whilst being able to speak other languages is not an absolute must for Celta trainees, it is hard for me to imagine how you can really relate to learners if you have not been in the same situation as them, so learning another language teaches us, as teachers, invaluable lessons, and every so often it does us good to put ourselves in the same positions as our learners, even, or perhaps particularly, if we have had years and year of experience.

    1. I totally agree Sharon. And lots of trainees and teachers have never had the experience and don’t really know or remember what it feels like to be on the other side of the table. Sorry about the shameless plug, but have you read my post from a couple of months ago? It’s all about exactly that…

  3. I have just finished my CELTA after spending 5 years training teachers for a company. It was good to see how the CELTA is taught and what my trainees have already been through before they get to the company.
    I have to say that even before going into the CELTA, I had already heard from so many trainees about how much they appreciated the experience of being a student before they learnt how to teach. I have already studied two languages so I am no stranger to the language classroom but even so, it was good to experience what it is like to be a complete beginner all over again and to enter the course with this context in mind.
    I just hope that trainers examine their reasons for taking it out. If it is because they really don’t see the value then fair enough but don’t omit it because it is not easy or comfortable for the trainer. The benefits make it well worth the trouble.

  4. Thanks for this great post. I think you are absolutely right Chia. I would like to include a foreign language lesson on my CELTA courses, but I need to learn a language that is a little more obscure than Spanish first!
    I remember on my initial teaching course we had to study Greek for a week and keep a journal on how we felt during the lessons. This was really valuable because it shows you how hard it is to be a student and literally how intimidating it can be! I remember being called up in front of the class and made to attempt a task I had no idea on how to carry out! I remember feeling totally humiliated. This taught me a valuable lesson: really think about the consequences of your actions as a teacher and be empathetic to your learners.
    A further point is that on courses like the CELTA the focus is on teaching elementary to upper intermediate students. On many courses there seems to be little practical option of training students to teach beginners and if you consider the fact that most people go abroad to teach, they will more often than not be teaching beginners.

    1. Thanks Glenn and Richard. The value of that foreign language lesson is indeed massive. Richard, I’ll be happy to teach you some basic Chinese or Japanese to help you carry out the foreign language lesson if you wish. It won’t be difficult.

  5. I sat through Hungarian for beginners, and it was really humbling. I am now very careful about making sure I give students enough practice in the anonymity (well almost) of a bigger group before asking them to say something on their own. I learned English as a child, and for me it was never that traumatic. But adult learners have lost the “I don’t care if I make a mistake” – mentality younger learners are often blessed with; teachers often forget.

    1. That’s so right Katja. And that ‘I don’t care if I make a mistake’ attitude is so crucial to language learning. That’s probably why self-conscious teenagers and high-status businessmen can sometimes make fore terrible learners…hahaha

  6. In my (Trinity College) Cert and Dip, I didn’t do this. I am not a CELTA trainer. However, I am self-employed, and regualrly go into primary schools to demonstrate software I have developed. One of the highlights we do is learning a foreigh language, usually Swahili. Teachers love it! And children do too if I do tha activity with them in class. If I were a trainer, and I had the freedom, I’d spend much more than one hour putting learners in the position of learning a foreign language. They’d actually be experiencing different activities from the learners’ point of view, which I feel is invaluable.

    1. It is indeed invaluable, David. I constantly refer back to the trainees experience with the foreign language lesson throughout the Celta when I’m trying to get them to see things from the learners point of view. Sorry for the shameless plug, but have you read my previous post ’10 things teachers should never forget’? It covers a simliar area, looking at learning from the students’ perspective. Hope that helps.

  7. I totally agree with the points raised about the value of the foreign language lesson.

    A quick question about the procedure: At what point do you show the written word? Do you drill the whole dialogue first and then board it or do you board it as you go along? When I first gave my foreign language on the CELTA course, one of the criticisms was that I was drilling from the written word, but I had already drilled everything before doing a disappearing dialogue. I don’t see the problem with this, but I’d like to know fellow teachers’ thoughts.

    1. Hi Sinead,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I think there are differing opinions on this subject.
      Personally, I prefer to drill without the written word first, so that students are not misled by the spelling of a word (especially with English), and then I write the word/phrase on the board (for those visual learners who are shifting about in their seats uncomfortable with not being able to see what they are saying), and then I drill again with the words/phrases on the board so that learners can connect the way something is said with the way it is written.

      I’m not completely sure the procedure you emplor with drilling alongside a disappearing dialogue. Care to enlighten?


      1. Thanks for your response Chia.

        Yes, I follow the same procedure as you, drilling chorally then individually before students see the word (using mime, gesture and examples to ensure they understand the meaning of what they’re saying) and then giving a visual representation. I build up a conversation storyboard with stick figures and speech bubbles and this is the basis for the disappearing dialogue. Afterwards, they mingle and have to remember the conversation.

        I feel it’s important for them to see the written word to improve/develop literacy. As you say, they need to be able to recognise the word especially if it looks different to how it sounds. Obviously, there is a prerequisite to know whichever alphabet is appropriate to the language (which I point out to trainees), but if they do know the alphabet, then I feel we should take advantage of this.

        Thanks again,

        1. Hi Sinead,
          I like the sound of your procedure. Building up the conversation storyboard with stick figures and speech bubbles and doing a disappearing dialogue that students can use in a mingle sounds very exciting.

          I usually do the foreign language lesson on the first day of the CELTA, and so I tend to keep it fairly simply just so that the trainees can unpack the stages after. But the principles are the same as yours, I suspect.

          I usually do either Japanese or Chinese in the foreign language lesson, and so the writing system is fairly different from English or most Western European langauges, which my trainees are much more familiar with. However, I do write down the pronunciation of the phrases in the English alphabet as this exists in both languages (the Japanese would call this Romaji, and the Chinese would call it Hanyu Pinyin).

          I do another session near the end of my CELTA on literacy, and there, I introduce some Chinese characters and get them to figure out what they mean, and then get them to try and write them (so as to get them to empathise with students who have L1s with different writing systems). But that deserves another blogpost of its own, I reckon… ; )


  8. An excellent post, and I agree with everything you say. You’re right – you don’t need to know a foreign language in depth to teach this session. I do almost exactly the same lesson as you’ve described in Polish, although I only have a smattering of it (I worked there in 2005 for a year). It’s very memorable for the students, and it’s something you and they will refer back to regularly during the course.

    I see no point in ditching it in favour of ‘classroom management’ – I do classroom management as the 2nd part of the session, looking at/analysing/discussing what I and the learners did at each stage.

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