Teaching Myself

I’m re-reading Bernard Dufeu’s Teaching Myself (Oxford University Press, 1994), about PDL, or Psychodramaturgy for Language Acquisition. My copy is a translation from the French; there is a recent second edition but it is only in German so far.

The first time I read Teaching Myself, I was anxious to learn about PDL, and skimmed the first chapters. Now that I’m looking closely at the introduction and first chapter, I am finding many ways that Dufeu’s approach to language acquisition mirrors that of Blaine Ray’s TPR Storytelling.

I’m going to type out some of the lines in the Introduction and Part One of the book so that others might become equally curious. As impertinent as it feels, I will be presenting what I know about PDL next Monday in Chicago at NTPRS 2014. I’m hoping that I will encourage other people to study and then discuss what parts of PDL philosophy and method can join TPRS and other comprehensible input methods.

Dufeu starts the book by explaining that this book is about his journey, and that “it cannot be a complete prescription for other people because every pedagogical choice is first and foremost a personal one.” He then quotes Henry Miller: “To be yourself, just yourself, is a great thing. And how does one do it, how does one bring it about? Ah, that’s the most difficult trick of all. It’s difficult just because it involves no effort.”

That quote alone could stand for everything TPRS practitioners believe. We belong in the moment; language acquisition itself should seem effortless. Dufeu compares the “pedagogy of being” with the “pedagogy of having.” The latter is what learners and teachers experience in traditional classes.

Before going any further, I must say that I hope not to be misrepresenting or misinterpreting Dufeu, but I’m sure that I will be doing so in some way.

The following quotes are pulled from the first chapter. “The learners [in traditional, textbook-based language classes] …  experience a twofold alienation: the language they are learning is not their own mother tongue, and what they say in it is not in their own words.”

Dufeu then talks about teachers who have tried to turn aside from traditional teaching to the communicative approach. “Creativity is often confused with absence of discipline [of the teacher], resulting in unprincipled eclecticism…Some activities are based on mutually incompatible views of learning…” That was unfortunately completely true of my teaching for my first 23 years. I wish it were different. I was trying so hard!

Next, Dufeu gives an example of the sort of exercise one could do in a PDL classroom, showing how it allows creativity and individual response. “Rather than being identified as the objective of teaching, language thus becomes a medium of expression and communication.” That is what we are aiming for as we ask stories or set up parallels, or do Ben Slavic’s Circling with Balls. We are using the language to get to know our students better and to encourage them to share their creative ideas.

Another point is that language is not just words; it is heavily dependent on context. “Comprehension is conveyed more forcibly through the meaning of the message than the sense of the words.” An example is “It’s ten o’clock.” Telling someone the time could mean that she is late again, has overslept, that the speaker is worried, that something exciting is about to happen, or any one of many other expressions. It’s not just the words. Now I understand one of the warm-up exercises, which has the learners walking around the classroom and saying “Yes/no, me/you,” in different voices and intents.

Dufeu explains that we have to work with the whole person, who is acquiring the language and therefore must be able to make mistakes, must have the process individualized. “What we teach is not limited to content: we also teach communication and therefore human relations.”

I can’t recall seeing that sentiment in any other text on teaching language. I’ve seen it in TPRS blogs and papers, however. The way it usually comes across is “I’m teaching children, not content.” Dufeu follows with questions the teacher should be asking:

“–How do I create the necessary conditions for acquiring a language?

–How can I facilitate the development of each participant’s receptiveness and capacity of expression in order that they can acquire the foreign language?”

I want to cheer, reading those questions, which are so different from asking, “How can I set up an activity to…” They might seem the same, but the motivation is very different.

Later, this: “Wanting to avoid error can interrupt acquisition and can even prevent it. This is why we try to create an atmosphere … in which error is valued…” and

“…during the great adventure of discovering foreign language, participants also work together on relationships and the kinds of communication they have with each other. Sometimes this gives them a different and broader view of life, or a more accurate and at times transformed perception of themselves, other people, and their environment…”

The last quote resonates with me because I found true what Susie Gross told me early into my journey with Storytelling. She said it would improve my life in the classroom and beyond. She was right; I listen better, know better how to show that I care, and even my children noticed immediately that I was happier and more at ease with myself in the world. I find these overlaps to be too striking to ignore them. As I’ve said before here, it seems to me that the best teaching methods have all the same concern for the individual and desire for the most elegant way to help acquisition happen.

PDL and this book are still too new for me to be able to distill the entire book into a coherent review. These quotes were a tiny part of the beginning. In the NTPRS session next week, I will be demonstrating some PDL activities and sharing the specifics that I’ve researched and practiced in my own classes. I will not be a “sage on stage.” Rather I will hope to start a study community.

I’m also hoping to attend a PDL language course sometime soon. It took taking a TPR Storytelling class and then being able to truly communicate in Spanish to convince me of TPRS’ power. I believe in PDL’s power, but I know that to be able to actually use the techniques effectively in my own classroom, I will need experience and training. I’m excited to realize that there is more to add to the CI bag!



7 responses to “Teaching Myself

  1. “As I’ve said before here, it seems to me that the best teaching methods have all the same concern for the individual and desire for the most elegant way to help acquisition happen.”……well put, bravo!!!!


  2. UNPRINCIPLED ECLECTICISM! I wish I had known this beautiful and powerful concept some years ago when I was explaining the advantages of TPRS as a method, with steps and purpose. All the best activities together do not make a cohesive program, it is the method which makes the difference. Gracias!


  3. There are many such powerful quotes in the book. It is going to be my bible for a while.


  4. Isn’t it like a miracle: An Alaskan Russian teacher points to a book out of print written by a Frenchman and republished in German, a book and a method I’ve never heard of in Germany.
    Thank you for writing about it. I ordered the new edition in German und hope to read it soon. Teaching at a Rudolf Steiner (Waldorf) school using drama techniques is not unusual at all because the pedagogical approach insists on working with the whole person and the whole language.
    Unfortunately I rarely found the drive to implement these techniques into my teaching, and while learning all about CI/TPRS during the last five years I have had lots of things to digest und to adapt to my school and my students.
    Many puzzle pieces have slipped into their position in the meantime, and I am happy that the big picture is starting to appear. We have so much to learn and won’t ever stop learning for the rest of our lives, I suppose.
    Perhaps you are interested in this book which is out of print, too, but available on Amazon:
    Alan Maley/Alan Duff, Drama Techniques in Language Learning, 2nd edition 1982. Mine is a former library book from American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale/Arizona! (LOL), sold by Amazon.
    If you ever plan to come to Europe for a PDL language course, please contact me. Perhaps we could meet.


    • Wow, Martin! You made my week!

      I actually have that Maley/Duff book, but until digesting some of the PDL information, had never been able to put it to use. I’m a slow learner in almost every area, and it takes multiple repetitions to acquire information. You should see me in a language class…always the barometer student!

      I will definitely be letting you know if I come your way. (Next time I go to visit relatives in the Netherlands, I might have to call for a one-day European CI meeting.) I told Judy Dubois that we should take an Italian PDL class together so that we could talk about how it overlaps with CI techniques in TPRS. We could make that three…or four, since Amanda Damon is on board too!

      We do keep learning for the rest of our lives! It seems as though even if we don’t learn new things every day, there is always and forever a deeper understanding to gain from what we think we know.


      • Thank you, Michele. I’m glad you know the book already. Hope to see you one of these days. Keep on posting about PDL. I will write to you when I finally manage to integrate some techniques in my classes.


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