The first thing I am going to state is that this is by no means a critique of the ways my teachers have been educating me — it is merely an observation; I should also like to mention that I am not unique in holding the beliefs I am going to present and discuss.
The basic statement is that modern approaches, methods and techniques in ELT do not seem to answer the primary need of the learner; therefore students, even after attending language courses for a long time, having best teachers possible and best coursebooks available on the market, appear to quite frequently be insufficiently linguistically equipped to describe their real lives and everyday experiences. As my expertise in ESP, Business, and Exam Preparation courses is arguably inadequate, it is important to mention that the type of learner meant here is the one taking, or that has taken, a General English course.
To my thinking, the roots of this dilemma are: the inflexibility of teachers and syllabuses that results in students not getting the language relevant to them; cultural and classroom taboos which, in turn, dismiss students’ potential need to talk about particular topics; the linear way of learning still being prevalent and, in fact, seen as the only one possible, thus depriving people of a great deal of learning affordances.
In the way we are usually taught languages, there is very little or no space for the student’s voice at all: the standard procedure prescribes a coursebook with a pre-made syllabus and, optionally, a grammar book, which will probably be given the fancy name of a supplementary material. In reality, the nicely laid-out units of a coursebook — in conjunction with teachers’ inflexibility — only constrain the classroom dynamic, and the grammar book eventually becomes just a pile of mundane exercises students have to struggle through. This can only be helped by attracting a truly outstanding teacher able to make these practices both entertaining and meaningful.
Ideally, the syllabus would be a reciprocal arrangement of the teacher and the students, probably including a flexible negotiated part, and a part suggested by the teacher; the topics would be only those of interest to the learners, and there would always be time set aside for using the so-called immediate resources: real-life stories people bring in themselves and consider important. This includes personal stories (that people feel comfortable sharing), deep reflections on life. Sharing should be seen as a communicative act and a desire to engage and produce language, and so should generally be encouraged.
This way, conversation would become a regular and beneficial practice rather than a rare occurrence, in many cases not taken seriously or regarded an embarrassing or awkward episode; people would develop the linguistic competence to conduct meaningful conversations on a rich variety of relatable topics.
Cultural and classroom taboos
It is understandable that some topics are normally avoided in conversation; however, should the necessity arise for these topics to be touched upon (that is, a student’s brought it up and feels really strongly about the subject), it would be, in my humble opinion, somewhat disrespectful to ignore that necessity and dismiss the topic. This may not only hurt the student emotionally, but also inhibit their progress and reduce motivation for further study.
For instance, there is no need to make everyone in class share their medical history; however, sharing such information, given it truly matters to the student and they have had an experience they are comfortable telling about, should never be discouraged. Other examples of the taboo topics that may be raised are: mental health (especially taking into account the stigma attached to the topic), family and work-related trouble, finance, religion, etc. An atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance is vital when conducting such discussions.
Linear way of learning
People usually see language learning as an extracurricular activity, as something part-time and not able to occur naturally when, in actual fact, it does and it should do so. If we look at how children learn languages, we will notice that they are never satisfied with only what the teacher gives them; they need more, they ask most unexpected questions and go beyond the topic, pushing the boundaries as hard as they can. Adults, in stark contrast, tend to limit themselves quite enthusiastically by vocabulary units. That is not applicable to all, of course, but it is the general tendency.
I suspect what happens is that people lose their passion for exploration and their skill for it as they get older; they no longer trust themselves in these matters and resort to private tutors, language schools or self-study materials for guidance. It is important to convey it to people that learning can and should happen naturally. When people use the world around them as a source of language, more of it comes into their possession than any pre-made material could ever give them.