From 1975-77 Maybin, still a “non-professional,” taught English as a volunteer for the Immigrant Services Society (ISS) in Vancouver. His students were South Asian women, many of whom had recently arrived and were illiterate, terrified, and desperately in need of language skills that would enable them to navigate the nightmare of shopping for meal ingredients and household supplies in a totally unfamiliar environment. The plight of these unfortunate women made the harried teacher quickly realize the importance of tying language instruction directly to the immediate communication needs of the student and of applying language skills to the real world as soon as they are learned.
At ISS, Maybin had been flying by the seat of his pants, observing the needs, degree of ability, and personal circumstances of each student in order to design and implement the curriculum materials necessary to get the job done. In such a context, a textbook was simply not an option. At Mitsui he began to refine his teaching approach by delving into theoretical works and consulting with other professionals in the field. The lessons he learned from Frau N and from his experience at ISS never left him, however; in fact, these principles formed the core of his pedagogical approach.
Application of these principles—and an unending process of trial and error—through thirty-five years of language teaching and study led to the creation of a unique instructional program designed to provide students with the language skills necessary to function at a basic level in the target language within a very short time.
The system, called ABLE, for Action-based Language Empowerment, is made up of two major components. The first is 10-12 hours of classroom instruction delivered by a native speaker of the target language, usually with little or no teaching experience. Lessons are focused on students acquiring the communication skills needed to survive in the country in which the language is spoken, so there are no grammar explanations. On the last day of instruction, the students head to the airport and fly to the country in which the target language is spoken. There they are required to independently complete a variety of tasks in their new language; these tasks may include asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant, and buying items in a department store. This is the second component of the program.
Paul Batten, an associate professor of education at Kagawa University on the island of Shikoku, attended one ABLE course as an observer. He recalls drinking tea with Maybin in Bangkok “as we watched his students in pairs go to the ticket lady and buy their return tickets to Ubon Ratchathani. They did it by using the skills they had learnt in his classes—key wording, asking for repetition, checking, eliciting, as well as the core of survival Thai they had got from the ABLE classes.”
By the time ABLE was fully developed and its effectiveness proven in numerous trials, Maybin was already thinking about how to create an online version of the system. But the technology necessary to program the unique features of the ABLE curriculum did not yet exist. And there were other obstacles: the significant investment in time and money needed to develop what has now become Sulantra as well as Maybin’s own lack of appropriate technical and business expertise kept the project on the shelf for several years.
But the same patient determination that over the years has characterized Maybin’s other projects, large and small, has guided Sulantra into reality. Thousands of travel miles and thousands of hours of planning, recording, programming, and debugging, not to mention the financial resources of Maybin, Tsuji, and the other business partners, have resulted in a one-of-a-kind language training site. Sulantra embodies Maybin’s ability to connect with people and build long-term relationships based on honesty and trust; his years of experience as language teacher, linguistic researcher, and language learner; and his passion for making a second or third language accessible to anyone regardless of their economic, geographic, or social condition.
For Maybin, “Sulantra is just the latest phase of this ‘language-soaked’ life.” Whether the project succeeds wildly or falls flat on its face, he is convinced that he will remain both a language teacher and a language learner until the day he dies. One also suspects that whatever the outcome for Sulantra, the next call to adventure will be embraced with a “Oui” that is as enthusiastic as the response of an intrepid teenager to a similar call in Quebec forty years ago.
Check out Don Maybin’s blog, “Fool for Language“
Photo courtesy Emma Bardizbanian
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