The Paul Noble Method

From language learner to language teacher – my own journey.

The most oft-used phrase in foreign language classrooms is probably not what you would expect it to be.

It isn’t "Guten Tag", nor is it "Voulez-vous?" not "muchas gracias" or "au revoir" - or even "Bonjour". No. The most commonly used phrase, uttered in foreign language classrooms across the entire English speaking world, is this: "I’m no good at languages" also frequently expressed as "I’m not gifted at languages."

Curiously, this is a phrase which is especially common, if not quite unique, to the experience of language learning. I don’t think, for instance, that I have personally ever heard it used by anyone learning to drive a car. Whenever I’ve met people who are having trouble learning to drive, very often their response is: "I think I might need to get a new driving instructor" or "I suppose it’ll just take time". Rarely do they suggest that they are simply "not gifted at driving".

Having said this, I have never considered myself to be especially "gifted" at languages. As a teenager, although I was otherwise successful academically, I was totally lost with languages - bemused and frustrated by them. The way they were taught made me feel as though they were some sort of unscalable height, simply beyond my own natural abilities. I found them so difficult in fact that I probably would never have given them another thought, except for the chance coinciding of my initial failures at language learning and my passing of the MENSA entry test. When I gained entry into MENSA, I did ask myself why it was that I could have a high IQ and yet be appallingly bad at languages. Was there a connection? I wondered to myself. Or was it just a question of not being "gifted" as one might or might not be in music, for example?

I did try to learn a language again later but I always met with failure and utter frustration. The explanations given to me by teachers and grammar books bamboozled me and progress seemed impossible. One day, however, I was wandering through a second-hand book shop, when I came across a very old looking and extremely tatty French textbook. Glancing inside, I came across a quote, which struck me at the time and which was to change the whole direction of my life. It was by the eighteenth-century French writer, Antoine de Rivarol. It was very short and simply said that:

"Grammar is the art of lifting the difficulties out of a language; the lever must not be heavier than the burden."

I was very much affected and inspired by this idea, that grammar should actually remove the difficulties from a language, rather than being a troublesome subject in itself. I thought long and hard about what de Rivarol had said and, with this basic idea in mind, I set about self-instructing myself, both in French and German, all the time being guided by this basic notion. Amongst other things, I deliberated a great deal about how the difficulties from typical textbook and grammar book explanations could be removed, so as to give myself and others a more usable understanding of foreign languages. (And it was ultimately from this process that I would later devise the basic principle that has since come to define my language teaching - the belief that there was nothing so complicated in foreign languages that it could not be made simple).

During my initial period of self-instruction, I also began to seek out any course, any book, any teacher’s note even, which might somehow adhere to what de Rivarol had said and so be easier for me to understand and to learn the language from. I found very few. Most courses offered much the same as that which I had experienced at school: explanations were confusing, highly grammatical and technical, and language elements were taught with seemingly no connection to one another, under various topic headings, such as "My Favourite Pet" or "Introducing your Family". These courses were of little help at all.

A small minority of authors and teachers did exist, however, who had produced books, audio-tapes and CDs that at least hinted at better ways to teach. And some of these provided moments of insight, if sometimes only fleetingly, into the languages those teachers taught. The best amongst these, and those of which I was the greatest fan at the time, were the courses by Alphonse Chérel, Jacques Roston, Lewis Robins, Charles Duff, Margarita Madrigal, Michel Thomas and Paul Pimsleur. Looking back, I can honestly say that each of them changed my life and helped me drag myself those initial steps along the path towards being able to speak a foreign language properly.

In spite of this, I was nevertheless acutely aware that they each still suffered from serious weaknesses:- both Alphonse Chérel and Jacques Roston’s courses could be extremely hard to get into initially, Lewis Robins’ courses limited themselves to mostly situational language, Charles Duff’s books frequently used archaic phrasing, Margarita Madrigal’s courses tended to drag on, Michel Thomas’s courses suffered from a peculiar accent and the inclusion of unusual, or unrealistic sentence patterns and Paul Pimsleur’s courses simply progressed much too slowly. Nonetheless, they did each help me to take some of those first steps.

On top of this, however, these courses were perhaps most valuable in that they acted as an aid in prompting me to try out some aspects of the instructional viewpoints employed by them, with the hope that they would make instruction easier and more effective. Although this proved ultimately not to be the case, I was nevertheless provoked by this into asking the most important question: why it was that, if courses could be fleetingly insightful and useful, they couldn’t be insightful, useful and use real language from beginning to end. This in turn led me into thinking long and hard about what it was that allowed each of their methodologies to work but then, ultimately, to fail at certain points.

Considerable time passed as I considered this, during which I came across the works of various authors, each of whom exerted a significant influence on the way I thought about languages or about learning in general. These included Barry Farber, Betty Edwards, Frederick Bodmer, Georgi Lozanov, James Heisig, Shin’ichi Suzuki, Silvanus Thompson and, most profoundly and crucially, Idries Shah. Each of these writer-teachers helped further open my eyes to the fact that there were always better ways to learn, better ways to teach and better ways to think about knowledge than were in general use. Spurred in part by this realisation, I decided to try writing a course of my own, one which would be guided by the belief that "there was nothing so complicated in foreign languages that it could not be made simple" and with the intention that this principle would be sustained throughout the entirety of the course. It would be a course where students "got" everything they were taught and where everything they were taught was useful, real language, which would allow them to hold a normal conversation with another human being. Finally, it would also be a course where, by its end, each student would actually be able to remember what they had been taught.

Eventually, I did write several courses based on this principle. They took a long time to develop and each had to be trial tested for many months just to make certain that they were heading in the right direction. As time passed, however, I found that the more I was able to apply my basic principle (that there was nothing in foreign languages that could not be made simple), the more I found that I was able to get the results I desired – and they were quite remarkable. Whereas students might normally spend several years studying languages at school and come out unable to communicate in that language, students were leaving my classes after the first few hours, able to construct complex sentences and to begin communicating in the language they had been taught.

Based on the great success of these courses, I eventually founded a private language college in which I could test my ideas and develop courses based on them. The Paul Noble Language Institute, as it came to be known, was the result of this. The French, Spanish and Italian courses I developed at the Institute were subsequently published by Collins. Since their publication, I have gone on to work exclusively with East Asian languages.

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