I’m looking at the goofy smirk of someone who’s delivered a burning comment, minimizing, derisive. Defiant whispers in my intimate classroom setting, being interrupted, receiving groupfuls of disgusted stares. Perhaps without realizing, my students can be decidedly unprofessional. Deers in headlights turn aggressive. “I don’t understand you” leads to uncomfortable feelings, and the instinct to deflect and lash out with a cutting remark.
I’m no stranger to the vulnerable insecurity that arises when your language is symbolically taken away. Suddenly confronted with the inner discord of translating a rainbow of thought into black-and-white, just to be understood. Not to mention that in France, classic pedagogy is infused with the idea that you can always do better, no matter how good you think you are. Liberté, Egalité, Critiquez. Make a mistake, and pay for it. The language classroom is no different.
Many of my students have lived the trauma of classroom humiliation at the hands of the all-powerful Teacher. Being shamed for the crime of being wrong, the hurt when classmates chimed in to further deride them. They’ve been trained not to ask questions, to expose a vulnerable moment. It’s easier to shut down. A common student response, be they 8, 18, 38, or even past retirement age.
Interactions with me can make ancient antagonistic feelings bubble up. I am seen as a critic, an insolent interloper, imposing my language–deemed simple, inferior, lacking nuance or artistic merit–onto my student. I become the symbol of their Old Rival.
English itself becomes a fetish object. Adored, yet feared. Necessary, yet despised. Simple, yet frustratingly irregular and nuanced. A language of countless verbs, a language of action. Not like French, a language of adjectives and lush description. English, a language that contains far more words than theirs, with double meanings and endless colloquialisms. Many don’t understand the true complexity of operating in a language where you cannot translate word-for-word.
In those moments of student frustration and corresponding contrarian response, I’m no longer speaking to an adult member of society, but to an insecure child, that lashes out with an antagonistic “I know what YOU are, but what am I?” This speaks to my inner child, who hates to be told what to do, is tired of people lording their authority to minimize and patronize me, to diminish my intellect, my language, my heritage.
No, I refuse. It does a disservice not only to myself, but to my student, if I am no longer present. My role is to facilitate, unblock, decode this system, to break it down into sensical, ordered, comfortably logical bits. Not to field proverbial spitballs. So I wait out the emotional hailstorm, extracting linguistic information.
Storm dies down. Move in, execute my grammar lesson, administer study tips and friendly goodbye’s. Deep breath.
If only they knew how often I must become the emotional bouncer, keeping out the riffraff.
“I’m afraid of being made fun of.”
How many times have my students confided this fear in me? Ashamed to struggle, flustered at their mistakes, looking like they want to disappear.
I wonder, What’s the big deal?
Since when do strangers’ opinions matter? Why are we so ready to give away our confidence to imaginary people who fictionally criticize us?
This mentality seems to speak to the greater idea that unless you’re going to be great at something, it’s not worth trying. Anything less than excellence is insufficient. You run the risk of entering the annals of history as a Failure.
Is our sense of self-importance that inflated, that our failures, never mind our very existences, will be remembered for more than 5 nanoseconds?
Push the logic a bit further, and it falls to pieces.
I screw up, forget things, commit acts of thoughtlessness.
I have a funny accent when I speak foreign languages.
I’m sure my lipstick is never smooth and flawless.
I trip over my feet, my skirts ride up, I get parsley in my teeth.
At times, I have no idea what to say. I get testy on occasion.
I ruin recipes and often write what I think is garbage.
So what? We all do.
Criticism from one person is fleeting. As is the embarrassment of screwing up.
More than fictional criticism that hasn’t happened yet, we should be afraid of leaving this world with regret in our hearts, at not having tried.
Let’s get over ourselves, and just do it.
“I don’t get it.”
Hands up in the air, head shaking, breath hissing in exasperation, body leaning back as far as humanly possible from the table. Downturned haddock mouth, brow furrowed, head slouching into a temple massage, fingers tense and aggravated.
It never ceases to amaze me, that this behavior comes from grown-ass adults: parents, doctors, lawyers, accountants, managers, generally functioning members of society.
Sometimes, I stare blankly back in response. No follow-up question, no attempt at clarification. I see expectancy and hope looking back at me; these are eyes that just want the answer, dammit!
When I see my adult students react poorly to frustration, I think back to my childhood. When my father spoke to me in Spanish and I didn’t understand, or when I had a difficult homework assignment, he’d nod his head in exasperation and exclaim: “Aprende!” Learn!
If only those were the magic words. “I don’t get it,” and instantly, you’re exonerated from the responsibility of mental exertion.
In a perfect world, I just give the damn answer, and we can all move on!
In the world of language learning, that just doesn’t cut it.
The moments of frustration, mental blanks, forgetting what we’ve seen dozens of times before… Years of experience have taught me that that is where true language acquisition happens. Learning to navigate through those difficult moments, to roll with them, not allowing them to completely block us: these skills differentiate between those who will succeed, and those who will not.
Alleviating a short moment of frustration by giving the easy way out does a disservice to the student. They are freed from the obligation to try, and thereby cheated out of an opportunity to learn. I want to echo my dad’s simple, yet timeless nugget of truth: Aprende!
“False beginner” is a term language teachers throw around to describe a learner who has begun from the top in learning a language, but who in fact already has some knowledge. This knowledge may come from (as in my case) environmental exposure, but not necessarily active usage of the language.
It can be difficult to identify their learning needs at first, and the classroom context may not work for them altogether (as in my case). I took Intro to Spanish while I was at UMass, and I didn’t do amazingly. Even if I can read aloud with a very good accent, the classroom setting is not how I have been in contact with the language, and it’s not a skill I associate with books and formal studies. Even if it worked for me with Japanese and French, formal classroom studies aren’t always my bag.
I’m a language parrot. I can imitate the accent, pronunciation, and manner of expression of native speakers, but this means I can also pick up incorrect or lazy speaking habits. I learn from hearing people use a language, and observing how they do so; textbooks and learning materials fill in the cracks and give me some rules to follow, but I don’t need them to make up the backbone of my knowledge of a language.
As for my accent, I have to credit my grandmother, who taught me to read aloud in Spanish and corrected my pronunciation when I was young enough to retain it. (Ah, the wisdom of the Grama… she helped me cement an excellent Spanish pronunciation during the critical period of language acquisition, which means I don’t sound like a complete gringa when I speak Spanish!)
I may not understand the subtilities of Spanish grammar, nor can I conjugate an irregular verb to save my life, but I know I have a relatively sophisticated vocabulary and decent oral and written comprehension. I’m currently working on a research project using primary documents in Spanish, and would like to eventually go to Puerto Rico to do research on the ground.
Funny enough, these are things that are difficult to admit. I never used the Spanish I knew among my peers or my family out of fear of criticism: I knew it was far from fluent, so I didn’t want to bear the embarrassment of being made fun of for my mistakes and having them pointed out without mercy. I already felt out of place enough, considering my appearance isn’t typically Latina (according to many people I’ve interacted and argued with throughout my life), and I was afraid of being labeled as a poser, someone with no right to claim my heritage. (I wrote a creative nonfiction essay about this experience called What’s the Opposite of a Coconut?, which was published in Killing the Angel Issue 2 in 2013.) In fact, the fear of judgement by others pushed me away from expressing a very real part of myself and owning my identity. It has always been easier to stay quiet than to speak up.
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that the classroom environment, where everything is either right or wrong, where mistakes lead to a lower grade, where one is constantly evaluated, isn’t my ideal Spanish learning environment.
Being a false beginner in a language puts one at an advantage when they decide to plunge into refining their skills; but meanwhile, the approach needs to be modified and tailored to the students needs, keeping in mind that it can be easy for the learner to lose their bearings and become discouraged. Language classes also tend not to teach grammar and vocabulary in the same order that the false beginner learned what they know; so from the beginning, it’s very easy to alienate the false beginner by immediately pointing out how much they don’t know. Just because someone is familiar with certain concepts of a language doesn’t mean that they have a rock-solid foundation; there are often cracks to fill in, little by little, without pointing out the depth and quantity of those cracks.
This is all true for me, and as a language teacher, it’s even more interesting to pick apart this phenomenon, and examine effective ways to deal with these students with whom I fall into the same category.
One thing I’ve learned during my various language studies is: The better you know yourself, the way your brain works, and the way you learn most effectively, the more success you’ll have in the learning process. And with this in mind, I’m jumping in.
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.
French class is over. Goodbye Charlie. So long. That’s all she wrote. After 3 intensive semesters of studying the complexities of the French language, I said my final “adieu” to the university this past Friday. My last exam was with the same teacher I started my studies with, so it was a fitting end.
Now all that’s left is to wait for my grades, and more importantly, my new visa to come through.
After being out of school for so long, it was bizarre to go back to class, surrounded by people who were mostly my baby sister’s age. Talking with my classmates brought me back to memories from Japan, where I studied abroad 8 years ago. The hope, the uncertainty, the naive perfectionism, the desire to find their path and figure things out, the desire to grow up; I saw a lot of my younger self in my classmates. While it brought back memories of a much more sheltered, carefree (or careless?), naive Lari, my experience also smacked me with a bit of perspective to take away.
It was weird to turn in homework, get corrected and lectured during the day in class, then switch roles and teach and correct my own students at night at work.
It was invigorating to be motivated not by grades, but by pure will and ambition to become self-sufficient, to be able to advocate for myself in a foreign language and country.
It was uplifting to observe my progress in French, and reconnect with my love of studying foreign languages.
It was instrumental in showing me my limits, and I learned the real meaning of being kind and understanding with oneself.
It showed me a glimpse of my potential.
It helped me rediscover my cojones.
It inspired an intellectual curiosity that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
It also opened my eyes to the fact that there’s no way for me to learn all that I would like to learn in this lifetime.
Now, on to the next. Training wheels are off, let’s see what I get myself up to.