I have taught English as a Second/Foreign Language and English Composition(to native and non-native speakers) for over 13 years now. I have been a language learner since high school (which was a FEW years ago ;) )studying five languages. However, that does not mean that I SPEAK or dominate five languages other than my native language, English. It just means I studied them. Big difference.
Ive always been a good student and became a really good student at university when learning became more fun (and more controlled by me). I always managed to get A's and B's in my language classes but I never came out of these classes able to do anything in the real world. I didnt really begin to dominate a language until I went to live in Germany from 1988-1992. There, not only did I have the usual language classes in German, I had German TV (no satellite back then) and of course needed to use German to communicate in order to do mundane things like shopping. The experience was a real eye-opener for me. While the classes were good to give me a jump start, I didnt really LEARN the language until I started using it. It was then I realized that a foreign language is a skill, not an academic subject and sitting around in a classroom, passively listening to a teacher (or daydreaming!) could only get me so far, if it really got me anywhere at all.
I returned to the US in 1992, and wound up in Arizona in 1993. I thought there, I could learn Spanish and duplicate my experience learning German... after all, Tucson is only 100km from the Mexican border. WRONG Unfortunately, the English and Spanish-speaking communities in southern Arizona are very separated and as easy as it is to blame the English-speaking community, I ran into Spanish-speaking people who kind of treated my attempts to speak Spanish as an intrusion of sorts.
My efforts to relearn Spanish (first studied it in high school but forgot all of it) was standard. Classes at the local community college, and then I decided to go on and get a second bachelors (first is in linguistics) in Spanish at the University of Arizona. Again, standard stuff - a few semesters of textbook work , some linguistics classes, a couple of culture and literary classes, even an one-semester independent study project and voila! Im a Spanish speaker right? WRONG Graduated with a 4.0 (which doesnt mean anything anymore) and couldnt hold a conversation in the language. Very disappointing, but not entirely surprising.
I decided to move on and get my masters in English Language and Linguistics with the hope of teaching abroad. In the meantime, I had discovered chatrooms in Spanish such as Latinchat and Red Planeta. I found these to be extremely helpful, and my ability to converse improved to the point that new chat partners needed about 45 min to an hour to figure out I was not a native speaker. Good for the ego! It was also a great help for when I moved to Mexico in 2003. Still needed help with listening skills but at least I could string a sentence together.
So what does all of this have to do with self access?
My experiences as a language student and as a language teacher have given me the impetus to look for ways to improve language teaching and learning. In spite of all the research and theories of the last half century, most foreign language classes are still taught the way I experienced back in high school in the 1970's... textbook-centered, passive students, and exams mostly based on grammar. Most of the "teaching" was drill work. Language labs, with all the promise of technology, were drill work too. In high school, all I remember about the language lab is "El español al día: Book 1 by Heinle...." and I think I fell asleep after that. I do remember wondering why there were all these buttons we never used. At the U of Arizona in 2000, I was disappointed to see basically the same equipment in their labs!
What my experience in Spanish chat taught me was that I needed language learning experiences that were not dominated by the teacher, and which I could control the content and pace, at least to some degree. Being able to communicate was motivating and chat permits one to slow the pace of the conversation if necessary.
After graduating with my masters in 2003, I got a job at ITESM-Campus Toluca, a technical high school and university in central Mexico. Not surprisingly, I found myself teaching the same kind of course I experienced for so many years. In fact the text we used at the 5th semester level was Focus on Grammar! But I was new and mature enough to sit back and see how this situation might unfold. After a semester, I saw opportunities to make minor changes at least in the sections I was teaching. I began with small projects such as chat assignments, working with interactive websites such as Frappr and the USDA dietary tracking site with my students.
The language lab was still a dinosaur. Cassette-based, teacher-controlled listening drills based on a language theory (audio lingual method) 40 years out-of-date. During my graduate studies, I came across concepts like autonomous language learning and even had a class on CALL, but nothing addressed how to take some of these really abstract concepts and create a flexible learning space for students. I had a concept in my head of taking that lab and making it into someplace where students can work on their own time and at their own pace with a variety of materials available, but I couldnt solidify the idea. That was, until in my wanderings on the Internet, I finally found the magic keyword - self-access.
Self-access language learning is a concept created in the 1980's and has been pushed heavily by the British Council at least since the 1990's. With this keyword I found many examples of the kind of "language lab" I was looking to build, most of which were in Asia and England. Excited, and knowing that my school was finding it expensive to maintain the old dinosaur, I pitched my proposal to the campus director, who to my pleasant surprise, loved it. Out went the dinosaur and in went 20 PC's, 15 portable cassette/CD players, and normal tables, chairs etc that could be moved around for varied uses including testing and the occasional class/workshop. I gathered lots of textbooks and audio that was lying around and even lent the space my collection of DVD's and books. I made my students enter this new "Language Learning Resource Center" three times a week. Other teachers had varying degrees of acceptance.
Reaction from students was nearly 100% positive (some of my students complained about the 3x a week rule). And the center was a success.
I should put in one caveat.
The Language Learning Resource Center was only loosely based on the British Council model (for lack of a better term). The BC describes its concept here http://www.britishcentre.com.mx/selfaccess.htm and worked with public universities in Mexico establish their self access centers on this model in the early 1990s (something I learned only several months ago). Success at these centers has been mixed. The major difference between the BC model and mine is that in mine, students are assigned tasks to do in the Center. In the BC model, students are supposed to plan what they are to do in the Center either with or without the help of a tutor. (Thats not to say students could only use my center for teacher-assigned tasks, as long as they were doing something in a language other than Spanish, they were welcome, even if it was watching a movie to kill time between classes ... which a number did do)
The problem with the idea of having students plan their own coursework is a question of readiness. Mexico, like many/most educational systems in the world, is very authoritarian in their approach to education. The teacher is supposed to tell the student everything (and I do mean everything) they are supposed to do, and the teacher is supposed to do all the evaluation. Having students choose they work they are to do and evaluate themselves is a far cry from this. The BC model does provide for tutors to help with this disconnect, but I felt that none of the students, the teachers or the administration was ready for such a radical step.
What my center does allow is student control of when they do the assignment, how long they take to do the assignment and in some cases the content (such as choosing the book to use for the book report). It also provides a space that is condusive to study (Mexican libraries tend to be noisy places, despite the "Silence" signs), mostly because it is decorated in foreign posters and flags and has me to keep reminding students to stay on task or they will leave. While this would anger some students, more students liked having a place where they could concentrate and this led to an interesting problem, students wanting to use the space to work on assignments other than foreign language!
I took the concept as far as I could at Campus Toluca. A little networking and I found myself with an invite to come to Campus Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico City) to repeat what I did in Toluca. Despite having a track record, I find myself with many of the same issues as I had in Toluca (teacher reluctance, problems with ordering materials etc) but progress is being made.