BRATTLEBORO — Elissa McLean has heard the same sad story more times than she can count: Adults say to her, "I took (fill in the language) for years in high school/college, but I can't speak a word."
McLean, founder and owner of Express Fluency, a language school and teacher training center, intends to change that by offering a new kind of language class. The method she uses is based on TCI, Teaching Comprehensible Input. (Listening and reading comprise input; speaking and writing are output.)
The usual approach in language classes has students memorizing vocabulary, grammar rules, and verb conjugations, she said. Those activities use a different part of the brain. The TCI approach seeks to duplicate the way people acquire their first language.
"Express Fluency's approach is based on research showing that people can acquire a second language more quickly — and enjoy it a lot more — when they focus on listening and understanding rather than verb forms and other grammar rules," McLean said. "When students are relaxed and actively understanding the language, speaking comes naturally.
"When you acquire your first language," McLean continued, "no one is telling you about indirect objects. You are constantly surrounded by people speaking the language to you. I use the analogy of learning to ride a bike. You're not given a book and told to learn the parts of the bike and the history of the bike and only then are you allowed to ride. To learn to ride a bike, you get on the bike and ride. This approach to language is like getting on the bike right away."
McLean's journey to this point has had several detours along the way. Her childhood introduction to language study followed a traditional approach.
"In fifth through twelfth grade, I studied French," she said. "I started with a lot of excitement, but I ended with no excitement for French at all."
At the University of Vermont, where she was an environmental studies major, McLean took Spanish for two years, "to fulfill the minimum requirement," she said. "I just wasn't interested in language."
Although she grew up in New York City, McLean spent a month during a summer break from high school backpacking on a wilderness course in Alaska. Her memory of that experience led her to spend a semester during college traveling in Patagonia under the auspices of the National Outdoor Leadership School. The course included hiking for a month and sea kayaking for a month.
"I went early and lived for three weeks with a Chilean family — mom, dad, and three daughters — in the town of Rancagua," she said. "My two years of Spanish study didn't help me at all. But I did pick up a lot of Spanish, both from the family and from a Chilean student on the course. I talked to her a lot."
Where the NOLS group traveled, there were no roads, only trails. The group met families living on small subsistence homesteads.
"The people were so friendly," she said. "They would ask us to drink mate (a traditional tea-like beverage) with them. That's where my real passion for language came from. Without the confidence to speak Spanish that I was developing on my trip, I never would have been able to talk to these amazing people. It was so moving to be able to do that. I came back really changed."
In 1996, when McLean was teaching in an alternative program at South Burlington (Vermont) High School, she and her husband went to Cuba for three months on a biking trip, eventually biking 2,000 miles.
"It was right before Cuba became a cool topic," she said. "On our trip, we'd bike all day, then look for a friendly person and ask where we could pitch our tent that night. Invariably, the person would invite us to stay in their home. The hospitality and generosity of the people were overwhelming. I'd cry every morning, not wanting to leave. Then we'd go to the next place, and the same thing would happen all over again. We were planning to write a book. We took 6,000 slides. This was in the days before digital. We never made the book, but we did a lot of presentations.
"My Spanish got so much better," she continued. "That's when I realized I wanted to help others make these friendships and meet with people."
After earning a Master's degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, McLean was invited to help start a school in the Boston area.
"The Shackleton School was a residential program for at-risk youth," she said. "I was the curriculum director. I would teach Spanish classes. I knew that how I'd been taught Spanish was not the way to go. I was trying to make it 'fun,' but it was still 'conjugate-the-verb' games. I wasn't doing what we know now to be effective."
In 2002 McLean moved to Boulder, Colo., to help found another school. Then she moved to Putney, Vermont, in 2005. She worked part-time as the college counselor at the Compass School in Bellows Falls. When the Spanish teacher there went on maternity leave, McLean became the long-term substitute.
She initiated an annual two-week trip to Mexico for the members of the junior class so they could study border issues and immigration, using their Spanish. Students met with people preparing to cross the border, with members of the border patrol, with a human rights lawyer, with activists on all sides of the question.
"We wanted the students to see all the different perspectives," McLean said. "It was an intense and profound experience."
Even so, she saw that the students hesitated to speak Spanish, despite having studied the language for three years, just as she, herself, had hesitated when she first traveled in Chile. She was convinced there had to be a way to help language learners develop the confidence to speak in the target language.
"I'd applied to work at Marlboro Elementary School," she said. "During the interview, they asked me what I'd like to do. I said, 'I've heard of this thing called TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling).' With their encouragement, I found a workshop happening the next day in Hartford, Conn., so I registered. It was amazing. After a two-hour demo in German, I felt like I could say more in German than my students could say in Spanish after a year. Marlboro hired me. Even though I wasn't sure what to do, I just knew I couldn't do what had been done to me or what I had been doing."
McLean attended trainings and workshops.
"I read everything I could get my hands on," she said, "and I just started teaching, using this method. Looking back, I see I did too much too fast with my students, but it was still way better than before."
For a few years during the summers, starting in 2007, McLean offered Spanish language camp for three-to-seven-year-olds. She called her school "Escuelita," (Spanish for "little school").
Almost by accident, she also started teaching adults one night a week and discovered she loved it.
"I was working with people like me, who had almost given up on learning a language," she said, "but who spoke more after two hours of class than they could speak after four years of study in high school."
So McLean left her day job, and Express Fluency was born.
"I didn't want a Spanish name for the school," she said, "because I wanted to offer languages in addition to Spanish. Right now I offer different levels of Spanish and French. I've offered a weekend Mandarin class. Thursday and Friday, Aug. 11 and 12, Justin Slocum Bailey, who is based in Michigan, taught Latin as a spoken language." During Bailey's course, 23 Latin teachers came to observe the class and receive additional training in the approach.
This session was followed by three days of teacher training for 16 more teachers of Spanish and French. Combined with a training McLean did in Burlington this past June, over 60 teachers, up from 16 last year, have learned this approach. The teachers came from Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, D. C. "Teacher training is something I started last summer," McLean said. "I love teaching students, but teaching teachers means they go back into their schools and change how language is taught. It's so exciting to see the exponential growth of this approach. Teachers are hungry for a way to teach language that engages all students and boosts speaking proficiency."
Developing a business, McLean said, has its challenges.
"I became so passionate about this approach," she said, "I naively didn't totally realize how much work the business side is. I have no background in marketing. But I love so much about what I'm doing that I'm figuring it out as I go. After my last workshop, an older woman came up to me. Crying, she said, 'I never thought I could learn a language, and now I know I can.' That's why I offer so many free classes. I want people to know they can do this."
The next free Spanish class will be Sept. 8, from 6 to 7 p.m. at 73 Main St. Express Fluency also offers classes in New York City and Boston, and will be adding new locations. More information is available at www.ExpressFluency.com, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-275-2694.
Contact Nancy A. Olson at email@example.com.