In August, 2005, we interviewed Robin Melnick, developer of the SHAPES Language training system. She teaches all types of students, but her specialty is intensive 3-day Spanish courses for people in the health care industry. Of course, she teaches French, too. We found out about her when one of her students said that Robin had recommended Fluent French Audio. Then we found out that Robin had been sending us subscribers for quite a while! We were wondering what Robin could tell us about the special challenges facing adult students.
Q: Robin, you have a special philosophy that comes from your own experiences as a language learner. Could you tell us how you learned... I think the number is 8 languages, right?
A: I speak 6 languages - but not all equally well. I've taken language courses in school - in high school, college, grad school and at adult language schools in the U.S. and Europe - but I've never learned to speak a language in school. I study a language after I learn to speak. I've always learned to speak talking with native speakers who weren't language teachers. First I learn to communicate clearly then I perfect the details - the grammar.
Q: So you knew what worked for you. How did you get into teaching?
A: I began teaching without any training as a teacher - which was to my benefit. I taught the way I'd learned to understand and speak. I decided to teach when I was working for Richard Ellmann, the director of graduate studies in English at Yale. I developed SHAPES, my instructional system, as I taught. I also began programming SHAPES - with games - for students and later, became an independent Apple developer and designed, programmed and sold SHAPES software internationally. Later, I returned to classroom teaching and taught middle school and high school students, then adults. Fifteen years ago I opened my own school.
Q: So you use the SHAPES system that you developed. Who are your typical students and what do they tell you about the SHAPES system. Do results vary depending upon some characteristic, such as age or current level in the language?
A: I mostly teach adults and most of the people I teach need to learn French or Spanish for professional reasons. There's no typical student. I teach people with varying backgrounds, levels of education and professions. SHAPES makes learning to speak easier for everyone. People who learned traditionally and did well in school need to learn how to think in French or Spanish so they no longer translate. People who don't understand their native language structurally (and this is most people) need to understand and appreciate the structural design of the language they want to speak. SHAPES helps in both cases. The people I teach tell me they can understand and speak because of SHAPES.
Q: Students often hear that they shouldn't translate, when listening or speaking, but that seems a bit much to expect of an adult student. Can you tell me your views on that?
A: Translating doesn't work and, besides that, it's exhausting. Adults need to be shown how to understand and how to speak without translating. I show people how to intake (read and listen) in thought units and I show them how to create (speak and write) in thought units. It's relatively easy to reconstruct a language if you know how to construct each unit. The order of the units is important but secondary - and in casual conversations, even in French, the order is not always predictable. If people think unit by unit, they can understand and speak.
Q: Now for your views on Fluent French Audio. You recommend it often. Can you tell me why? Also, is there any type of student who should NOT use Fluent French Audio?
A: Fluent French Audio is great! It's interesting, entertaining and informative. It improves everyone's pronunciation and is easy to read. The vocabulary is fun and useful. The text is easy to understand structurally if you look at it in thought units -- and it's VERY hard to translate. (I like that!) I recommend Fluent French Audio to all my adult students. The variety of speakers, dialects and topics is wonderful. I haven't used it for high school students, and I'm not sure it would appeal to college students - but it might.