What France is Teaching Me About TESOL

I’ve been working in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) here in France for just over a year now.  Of course, every student is a unique person with specific needs to address, but it’s difficult not to recognize certain recurring learner trends.  I made some observations about my adult Korean students in a previous post, and it’s high time for a post about my adult French students.

One thing that I’ve noticed about my students is that they can find the process to be extremely demoralizing and stressful.  Making mistakes and/or looking “ridiculous” in front of other people seems to be a fate worse than death.

It feels like it goes beyond the very normal element of shyness and hesitance to make mistakes.  In the past year of teaching English, I’ve never heard so many apologies for making errors.  I’ve never heard so many curse words muttered out of frustration, either.  When it comes to learning English, there doesn’t seem to be much room for patience and forgiving oneself for not getting it down perfectly.

Is it related to saving face?  Or unwillingness to “dumb-down” and flatten what would be articulately expressed in their native language, to roughly translate their ideas into a foreign language?

The number of students, especially higher-level ones, that revert to using French is surprising.  Oftentimes, rather than using English to convey their idea with the words they can, they’ll ask me for a translation from French.  Fortunately for them, my French isn’t perfect, and there are plenty of words that I don’t know yet.  Those tend to be precisely the kinds of words they’re searching for.

I also find it funny when they are dismayed at the irregularity of English rules; it is a decidedly hard language to master.  But now I’ve spent a long time intensively studying French, memorizing the maddening irregular verbs and genders that don’t make logical sense, along with the hugely different ways of interpreting and expressing time.  French is a beautiful, intricate language that is also difficult to master.  “Hello? French isn’t exactly a cakewalk, people!”  It’s not unfathomable to learn a language with very irregular rules.  Why the dismay?

I get part of their frustration.  The English language education system here wasn’t terribly focused on promoting speaking skills and real comprehension.  Now, more and more people are trying to make up for lost time in learning English for their job, to improve future prospects, or to facilitate communication while traveling.  And learning English later in life seems to be a common regret.

The recurring word here: criticism.

Sometimes I feel like I need to be part cheerleader for my students, to tell them that making mistakes is normal, that it’s okay not to master a new grammar point just a couple days after learning it.

Of course, as a teacher, it’s my job to understand their needs and respect certain limits; but at a certain moment in time, I like to encourage them to push those limits.  Speaking in short phrases, using the same old tired vocabulary/phrases that are sure to be perfect: in the end, they’re crutches that won’t be useful in getting through the plateau.  And to illustrate the importance of breaking these habits, I tell them all the time: “You’re not a robot, so don’t speak like one!”  In the kindest way possible, of course.  I wouldn’t like to be a slave driver of a teacher: from what I can tell, they’ve had enough of that already.

Encouraging them to remember that English can be a pleasure, and that with it they can connect with a wider community of people, seems to give incentive and boost their morale.  And that’s what I’m there to do.

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