Focus on the Learner. Teaching lessons from Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian”.

Do you know the scene in Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” where a crowd has gathered outside his house and are chanting as one?
Brian tells them they don’t need to follow a leader; that they are all individuals, they are all different to which they reply all together: “Yes, we’re all individuals! We’re all different!” Then a lone voice pipes up from the back: “I’m not.”


The crowd are repeating learned chunks of language and copying what they hear. This can be quite mindless. The guy at the back is listening to what’s going on and making a personal response, selecting his own language to do so. If we put the humoristic part aside, the oxymoron of the mass repetition revealing exactly the opposite of what the sentence content means to communicate, this is just another example of what mechanical learning deprives kids of… the space to think clearly, to be an individual, to be different.

Text by: Natassa Manitsa

In our classrooms, there’s a place for choral repetition to cement language and give opportunities to students to try it out before being asked to individually speak. Still, we want to move on to helping our students become able to be who they want to be and to say what they want. Not what we tell them to, but what they REALLY want. Of course, there has to be input; some sort of presentation of language which is mostly comprehensible to the learners, they need to tune into it, practice, and produce it. At elementary levels, the language is necessarily limited. However, here too learners can speak for themselves. They will make mistakes, but that is only normal.

Good language learners are risk-takers, are more interested in communicating meaning rather than getting the form right, are good at seeing patterns, actively seek opportunities to use and study the language themselves, and can self-monitor.

Learners’ progress may be hampered by personal factors such as lack of confidence, intelligence (whatever that is), poor social integration — there’s a problem with the group dynamics, and lack of motivation. (It’s not interesting. Why should I do this exam just because my parents want me to?)

What can the teacher do, taking such factors into account, to help learning and acquisition be as effective as possible?

First, a note on the difference between the terms above. Acquisition is the natural, unconscious way we pick up our mother tongue. Learning is a conscious process.

So, what to do?

– Make the classroom atmosphere positive. Praise, encourage, and use variety.
– Individualise. Be aware of the individuals in your group; their strengths and weaknesses, interests, and aims. Encourage them to talk about themselves, their experiences, and topics of interest to them.
– Give problem-solving tasks in which they can work together.
– Encourage autonomy by teaching dictionary skills, eliciting rather than giving vocabulary and rules, giving research projects and encouraging extensive reading and listening, and testing progress regularly in a variety of ways.
– If you are a native speaker, beware of coming across as arrogant. (One advantage of being an “outsider” is that you can be seriously interested in what the students have to tell you about their culture and language.)
– Use humour. Be accepting.

“What have the Romans ever done for us, eh?” rhetorically asks the leader of a revolutionary group of zealots in the Python film. It turns out the Romans have been rather a good thing actually (roads, baths, law and order etc). Do not ask what your students have done for you; ask what you have done for your students yourself.