As a brand new teacher, I remember feeling that my main objective was simply to get through the class without forgetting anything or upsetting anyone.
The nuances of the language environment, interaction patterns, and even structure and timings all came second to the avoidance of panic and disaster. But once I’d found my feet, I became increasingly interested in the process in which I was taking part: the acquisition and use of new language. I’ve been fascinated by it ever since, and I invite my trainees to consider these larger themes, early in their professional lives, so that they gain a fuller understanding of what our students are experiencing, moment by moment, in our classes.
3 Topics for Training New Teachers about Language Acquisition
Understanding the Basics: The Real vs. The Expected
Empathizing with our students isn’t easy. They’re often from different backgrounds and, as non-native speakers, inevitably have a complete different experience of English. What happens, I found myself wondering, in that transition from new student, to experienced learner, to fluent, native-level speaker? And how can the teacher ease that journey, in each student’s case? Preconceptions and expectations – both from the teacher and the students – are not always accurate, as we’ll see.
- Express Success? Probably Not
I teach my trainees some ‘first principles’. Language learning is a process which takes time. Nobody will come along with a magical device and simply install English in someone’s brain. It will take weeks to get anywhere, months to become confident, and years to become fluent. If we accept that we’re in for a steady, often frustratingly slow journey, then it’ll be easier for us to see that journey from the students’ point of view. However maddening you may find it that, after eighteen months, your students are still making basic conjugation errors, be assured that they’re just as frustrated at their inability to express what they’re thinking.
- Real vs. Artificial Learning
Success in language learning has a lot of variables (see below) but one key area to discuss at the outset is production. For me, a piece of language hasn’t yet been learned until the student can spontaneously, naturally and accurately use it to express what they mean. This is a specific and exacting requirement. I mean something more than answering multiple-choice questions about the language point, or even recognizing errors; I mean independent usage. This takes lots of practice, over and over, in different guises and in all four skills (speaking, listening, reading, writing). Not until the language has been produced, in just this way, can we say that it has been learned.
- Which Is the Best Environment?
Finally, there are students who learn independently, without a teacher, and largely in silence. There are those who maybe speak English for a few minutes a week, and seem to get along fine. These, for me, are exceptions. English is best learned as an interactive discussion, a to-and-fro of questions and answers, a natural, conversational style which emphasizes participation and production. Alternatives are possible, but I believe this is the best way, and I encourage my trainees to create just such an environment for their students.
- Express Success? Probably Not
The Language Learning Journey
It’s easy to view the learning of a language as a journey which begins with a blank slate, involves taking in new language and producing it, and ends at a point of fluency. I don’t believe that any of these metaphors holds true, in reality.
Firstly, whereas our students haven’t learned much (or any) English before we meet them, they have nonetheless learned a language – their own! This is not, therefore, their very first language-learning experience.
And this previous experience will inevitably color and inform their English learning, perhaps in ways you might not expect. We’re all familiar (or, if you’re a new ESL teacher, you’re about to become familiar) with Chinglish, Spanglish, Konglish and the like, those assumedly ‘hybrid’ languages spoken by learners who are bringing their L1 (first language) experience to bear while learning their L2 (second language).
Well, there is a theory which explains this kind of broken, halting, half-way language our students use. They’re not bringing together L1 and L2, or even using one to translate the other. Instead, according to Larry Selinker and others, they’re creating a new ‘Interlanguage’ of their own.
Understanding the Interlanguage
This half-way language will serve as our students’ means of expression until they gain fluency. Interlanguages are formed from an interaction between L1 and L2, one which is subject to overgeneralization, assumptions and simplification. Our students will see a grammatical rule and assume it applies in all cases; this is why we hear ‘he goed’, because the student has seen ‘ed’ past endings and generalizes across the irregular verbs, too. Students will assume a single meaning for each word – why wouldn’t they? – and will break down and simplify complex structures (‘he go dance’, rather than ‘he has gone dancing’.)
One other influence of L1 which affects the Interlanguage is something I’ve come across with Chinese learners in particular. If an English structure (e.g. the past or future perfect) does not occur in the students’ L1, its almost as if they doubt its veracity. I’ve had to lead students reluctantly – sometimes very much so – to use such alien structures, because even more than usual, it feels foreign to their own L1 experience. Furthermore, because their own language does without it, they find it irrelevant and troublesome; why bother with ‘I’ll have finished my dissertation by the time I graduate’, when it’s so much easier to say, ‘I’ll finish my dissertation before I graduate’? As a huge fan of the future perfect, I have to work hard to get this one across, but I understand this reluctance because the Interlanguage has little patience for needless complexity.
Perceiving my students’ speech as representative of this Interlanguage has been a real eye-opener for me. I’ve surrendered the idea that language learning is, in part, ‘deficit-based’ and dependent on finding and correcting gaps and problems. Instead, I can see that it’s a holistic journey in which the Interlanguage is built up and perfected, bringing it (very slowly, in all likelihood) closer to native-level L2. I invite you to take a closer look at this concept and see if it makes sense, in your own experience.
What Affects the Language Learning Journey?
I’d like to think that anyone is capable of gaining fluency in English, but there are variables which govern just how quickly and easily this will happen.
Age. Research has shown that, if a student begins studying a language before the age of twelve, they gain ability and fluency more quickly. This doesn’t mean that older students are wasting their time – far from it – but this ‘critical period hypothesis’ emphasis the importance of an early start.
Personality. The data is causing some controversy, but it seems that more extrovert and confident students sometimes learn more quickly than their shy, introverted classmates. At the same time, we can all think of a loud, voluble, center-of-attention student who makes plenty of mistakes, and a shy, retiring, very quiet student who speaks in beautifully crafted sentences and has a wide vocabulary. For me, personality is far less important than…
Motivation. This is a really key point. Students who are striving for good grades seem to achieve less than students who genuinely, passionately love the learning process and the language itself. A desire to improve for its own sake is apparently a greater engine for learning than the less ‘organic’ motivation engendered by exam systems.
Conscientiousness. This trait has too many variables of its own for us to really understand where it comes from – genetics, home environment, previous schooling, age and, as has been discovered only more recently, the students’ mental health situation are all relevant – but the willingness of the student to knuckle down and practice is a really influential aspect of their learning behavior. Alongside this, the students’ agreeableness and openness – which can, perhaps, be seen as aspects of personality, but for me are closer to behavioral traits which can change day-by day – are truly important in how they respond to the learning environment.
Finally, it’s hard to overstate the importance of contact with L2 speakers. If you were fortunate enough, as a high-schooler, to travel to where your L2 is natively spoken (e.g. British school trips to France and Switzerland) then you’ll have witnessed L2 in its natural context, which will have been rather a different experience than that provided by your teacher and textbooks back home. The opportunity to hear and speak native-level L2 is priceless; this has been a huge factor behind the explosive growth of language schools in the UK and US in recent years. If you’ve never met a French speaker (or, even better, made friends with one) why would you ever believe that you truly need to speak their language?
Above and beyond the background of our students, their personal situations and the complexities and nuances of the Interlanguage, we as teachers have a tremendous power to sculpt the learning environment and form a conducive, warm and enjoyable place to practice.
My students know that they can try new things, risk making mistakes, stop and ask questions, and help their classmates; this kind of environment helps produce enormous amounts of language, and provides the communal atmosphere which is most helpful to learning. Whoever your students are, they will benefit from your empathizing with them, understanding a little of their journey, and accepting their individuality as they progress toward fluency.