The TEFL Life: A TEFL blog

a story about bad grammar and non-existent punctuation and my TEFL adventures

#languagelearnerfail: lessons from my foreign language attempts

I’m one of those people that love learning new languages. I’m fascinated by the sounds and feel of different languages and I envy multilinguals: they’re the ultimate in cool for me. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have the patience, dedication or motivation to stick with language learning past the basic conversational level. So I’ll start learning loads of languages (Italian, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, French) and continue learning none of them. Jack of all trades, master of none – that kinda vibe.

As an English language teacher the hypocrisy is not lost on me, but when I think about it, I think it’s precisely my adventures in language learning (or, more accurately, language failing) which help my teaching. In other words, understanding why I did not progress past a certain level has made me more aware of how I can help my learners.

Let me explain.

I’m bilingual myself, for all intents and purposes, but through no choice of my own. English is my first language and when I was at school we had to learn Afrikaans as a second language, so I was subjected to Afrikaans lessons several  times a week for about  ten years. Thankfully I walked out of that being able to speak Afrikaans, but after that I completely neglected it and now it’s shrunk to miserably embarrassing levels.

What can I learn from that?

Lesson 1: Even if you don’t enjoy or are not particularly interested in learning a language, if you put in the hours you will get results.

I understand not everyone has a knack for languages and I was a hardworking student, but the point remains: hard work yields results. For our students, this means we need to instill in them an appreciation for the hard work required of them. Our classes should not only be fun and games but also include moments of concentration and hard work.

When I was in Thailand quite a few years later, I picked up a fair amount of Thai but again, through very little effort on my part. I lived there for over two years and looking back, it’s kinda sad that I didn’t take that opportunity to learn Thai well while I had the chance. I mean, it was all around me. But I didn’t, and life goes on.

Lesson 2: Exposure is one thing but it will only get you to a certain level. Then you need to put in the effort.

Then, while I was doing my Master’s I decided to study Spanish. I took a Beginner’s course which I paid for, which added pressure on me to attend. Which I did and I passed the course (okay I scraped a pass, but a pass is a pass). But I must say the whole course was a huge effort for me. Every week I would almost dread going to class and I usually managed to make up various excuses to avoid doing the homework.

Why? The lessons were incredibly dry and boring.

Lesson 3: Language lessons need to be interesting or else learners will create an emotional barrier against learning.

As teachers, this is really the least we can do: do our best to help our students have fun in class, look forward to coming to class and enjoy using the language. Though this does need to be balanced with Lesson 1, lessons need to be interesting, relevant and varied in order for students to enjoy them.

Plus, I had other things to think about: my degree, my social life, drinks at the pub…

Lesson 4: Sometimes life can get in the way of learning. Language learning needs to be a priority for us to make the effort to stay focussed.

Especially if you are teaching adults, we need to bear in mind that our students have lives outside the classroom which may affect their learning time or motivation. The fact that our students signed up for lessons in the first place is impressive, let alone that they actually come to them, so if you find your students are not as studious as you’d like them to be, take the time to find out the reasons behind it and try to think of a compromise. Let’s face it, our students’ jobs are probably of more immediate concern than a present perfect grammar exercise, so we need to create a safe space where they feel comfortable to suspend their stress levels and focus on the lesson.

After my half-arsed attempt at Spanish, I had the opportunity to live in Spain for three months. I was teaching English and doing my DELTA and having the best time in Barcelona. At the back of my mind I assumed those three months would elevate my entry-level Spanish to native-like levels. The reality?  I spent my days ordering beers and coffees, asking for directions and buying train tickets in Spanish, and doing everything else in English.

Lesson 5: Even living in the country is not a guarantee that you will speak the language.

If, say, you’re teaching English in London, don’t assume that just because English is constantly surrounding your students that they will use English in their daily lives. They will certainly learn to use English for the day-to-day basics, but it’s very easy to avoid using the language if you don’t want to.

The solution: bring the outside world into the classroom, demonstrating to your students how they can interact with the world around them.

Finally, recently I’ve become fascinated with apps. I’m using Duolingo to learn Spanish (still, again) and French. While I’m still not sure how far it can or will take me down the language learning road, at the moment I’m really enjoying it. I do exercises every day  and my motivation is at an all-time high. It only takes a couple of minutes every day and the repetition built in is clearly helping my vocabulary retention.

Lesson 6: Technology can be a great way of dealing with homework.

Finding homework which our students will enjoy and which will motivate them is key. It does not necessarily need to relate to the lesson of the day, as essentially all language is related. The majority of our students these days (no matter their age) have access to smart phones, so why not make use of them by assigning homework on an app?

Lesson 7: repetition, repetition, repetition.

But we knew this one already.

Teachers always say that teachers should be a student again to remember what it feels like. I’m a big fan of this idea, not only to remember what it feels like to be in the classroom but also to think about our own language learning journeys and consider what we can learn from our successes and our failures.


One comment on “#languagelearnerfail: lessons from my foreign language attempts

  1. Pingback: What dreams are made of… | Jellybeanqueen: A TEFL blog

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This entry was posted on August 18, 2016 by in advice, language and tagged , , , .
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