Things students say that break my heart

This is a post that I wrote for the ELT Knowledge website a  month ago.

Click here for part two of this post.

 

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Learning a language is hard work and requires copious amounts of patience and determination. Its process is a complex one that, despite prevailing research into SLA (Second Language Acquisition) and Psycholinguistics, most still struggle to fully understand.

Yet many have fixed ideas about the language learning process and judge themselves harshly when it comes to their language experiences and expectations.

Undoubtedly, learning to speak a foreign language is an emotional experience that at times can be daunting and make one feel like a child, void of control over the simplest forms of communication.

And such emotions can be overwhelming at times.

I have heard different learners say similar things prompted by such emotions, and I feel for them each and every time. And perhaps the best thing is to understand why they are saying these things, and to make them better aware of the processes involved.

Here are some of the heart-breakers:

What they say: I feel stupid when I have to think and hesitate when I answer a question.

What’s really happening: When asked questions like ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘Where are you from?’, students are less likely to hesitate when answering. That’s only because they have been asked these questions a million times and no longer need to think before they answer. This also means that there is no thinking or complicated mental process needed to formulate these answers. The needed language has already been learnt and no more language learning is taking place.

When students have to think and hesitate, this indicates that they are finding ways to construct the sentence by drawing on all the lexicogrammatical and discoursal resources they have, paraphrasing, looking for synonyms and antonyms, making use of cohesive devices and trying anything to get their meaning across. Complex mental processes are activated while meaning negotiation and accuracy and fluency practice are being carried out.

I love it when students hum and haw. That’s language acquisition happening right before your eyes!

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What they say: I feel embarrassed and insecure when I have to speak English in front of native speakers.

What’s really happening: Native speakers are often seen as target role models that students would like to emulate, and this no doubt comes from the fact that people traditionally learnt foreign languages in order to speak to native speakers and to get to know the target culture.

But in an era where English is now the lingua franca, and more and more are learning the language to further their career prospects and to travel, the target interlocutors and target culture are no longer simply those from the UK and the US.

Furthermore, the fact that one is biologically a native speaker is no guarantee of their abilities to speak eloquently or write clearly, and definitely no indication of adeptness at effective communication with other non-native speakers. In fact, it is not uncommon to find UK businesses employing trainers to give their British employees English workshops so as to enable them to successfully communicate in a global environment.

Alternatively, students might say the above because they have had a bad encounter with a rude or impatient native speaker. If this was the case, I just tell them this: They can’t sympathise with your position because you speak two languages (or more), and they probably speak one. You should feel sorry for them.

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What they say: My last teacher said ‘I need more grammar’.

What’s really happening: There is a traditional belief, rooted in the tradition of the way Latin and Greek were taught, whereby learning a language was equated to the learning of grammar. One could even go so far as to argue that with most European languages, morphology and verb inflections make up the foundations on which the languages are based. While vocabulary acquisition has always been thought to be a simplistic matter of memorization, the ability to string the lexis into a syntactically correct and coherent sentence is a mental process that few understand.

So, telling a student ‘You need more grammar’ is more like saying ‘You need to know more about the English language’.

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What they say: I felt like I was improving at first, but now I feel like I am deteriorating.

What’s really happening: For students on an intensive course, what might be happening is that they started out feeling motivated and were taking on all the learning opportunities offered to them, and therefore felt like they were improving.

However, this also means that they have started to notice the gaps in their knowledge and become more aware of their mistakes and the things they can’t do. Unlike before the course, the student is now paying extra attention to his/her language use and feeling self-conscious about it. This naturally leads to a feeling that they are deteriorating.

In actual fact, they are improving.

Because awareness is the mother of all progress.

For students on a long-term programme, this issue might simply be a lack of motivation and a feeling that they would never arrive at their destination.

The novelty of learning a new language has worn off and ‘Mid-Int-initis’ has set in. Their improvement curve seems to have stagnated. And there is still so much more they don’t know.

If this is the case, perhaps it is time to review their goals. Set specific performance-related mini-goals that could be met in shorter time frames and flag up the fact that no one knows everything and every word in a language. It is being able to do the things one wants to do with the language that counts.
Besides, we know that embracing the journey is sometimes more important than the destination. And we as teachers are at liberty to make that journey all the more enjoyable.

Perhaps hearing students say these things might break my heart, but if I can give them the confidence to never need to say them again, I’d consider my job half done, don’t you think?

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Death by Idioms

This is a blogpost I wrote for ELT Knowledge – home to the journals English Teaching Professional and Modern English Teacher.

As English confirms its position as the global lingua franca and the language of international trade, business and tourism, there has been more and more talk in the English teaching world regarding the necessity of teaching idioms.

Seidlhofer (2004) warned of the dangers of unilateral idiomaticity, whereby the use of idioms by a speaker could result in incomprehension on the part the interlocutor who is less acculturated to native-speaker norms.

In other words, the use of idioms could be to the detriment of mutual intelligibility and serves no purpose except to perpetuate the native-speaker’s target culture, which is usually taken to mean the American or the British culture.

Now, before you get up in arms about this and start bellowing, ‘But my students want to be taught English idioms!’ from the rooftop of the nearest language school, let me reassure you that I am not entirely comfortable with lumping all English idiomatic expressions together and damning them all at one go.

So first of all, let us consider this. What is an idiom?

The online dictionary www.dictionary.com defines ‘idiom’ as ‘an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements’, while the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary defines it as ‘a group of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words’.

Both dictionaries then proceed to give examples of idioms such as ‘to kick the bucket’ and ‘to let the cat out of the bag’.

The meanings of these fixed expressions are clearly far from the meanings of the words themselves (‘to die’ and ‘to tell a secret by mistake’, respectively), but are idioms always so easily defined?

Look the following dialogue for example. Can you spot the idioms?

Rachel:           Hey, why are you feeling so down?

Michael:         My pet hamster passed away last night.

Rachel:           Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. I know, how about some retail therapy to cheer yourself up?

Michael:         I can’t. I’m broke. I blew all my money on this tiny hamster coffin. It cost a bomb.

Rachel:           I’ll treat you to something nice. Come on, let’s go.

Michael:         I can’t. I’m knackered. I stayed up all night last night mourning little Lord Nelson.

Rachel:           Look, at the end of the day, you can’t beat yourself up like that. You’ve got to get over it.

Michael:         I can’t. I’m dying inside…

Rachel:           Alright then…whatever.

You could comfortably categorise ‘it cost a bomb’ as the same kind of idiom that ‘to let the cat out of the bag’ is.

But how about ‘passed away’, ‘cheer yourself up’, ‘blew all my money on ~’, ‘stayed up’, beat yourself up’, and ‘get over it’?

 

Are you arguing that these are phrasal verbs?

But don’t most phrasal verbs have meanings that are not derivable from the individual meanings of its constituent parts?

Are phrasal verbs naturally idioms then?

How about ‘feeling down’, ‘retail therapy’, ‘I’m broke’, ‘I’m knackered’, and ‘at the end of the day’?

Arguably, these are expressions that might have started out as idioms, but through common and frequent use, have earned a place in our cognitive processes as directly representing a different meaning to its linguistic origins? Most teachers might not even consider ‘broke’ an idiom, and would take its meaning of ‘without money’ to be simply another homonym of the word ‘broke’.

Another example of this is the above adjectival past participle ‘knackered’ (meaning ‘tired’). Originally meaning ‘to kill’, sending your horse to ‘the Knacker’s Yard’ meant that your horse was due to be slaughtered due to old age. However, even in late 1800s, ‘to knacker’ had already taken on its idiomatic meaning of ‘to tire out’.

But would English speakers from the USA, Jamaica, India or Singapore understand/use the word ‘knackered’ when they want to say that they are ‘tired’?

The online etymology dictionary www.etymonline.com states that the word ‘idiom’ was first seen in French in the late 1500s to mean ‘form of speech peculiar to a people or a place’, and in Latin and Greek to refer to ‘peculiarity in language’ and ‘peculiar phraseology’.

This suggests that the original concept of idiom referred to a type of colloquialism or code used amongst a particular group of people. This code-specific characteristic is clearly seen in the word ‘knackered’, where the target culture is closely tied to the idiomatic expression. The same can be said of the following idioms:

  • to be full of beans’ (‘to be full of energy’ – UK),
  • drinking the Kool-Aid’ (‘people who conform without questioning the belief or argument, displaying a lack of critical examination’ – US),
  • came out of the left field’ (‘unexpected, unusual, irrational’ – US baseball idiom)
  • catch no ball’ (‘didn’t understand a thing, wasn’t able to grasp the concept’ – Singaporean English idiom resulting from a direct translation from the Hokkien dialect)
  • the equation has changed’ (‘the relationship has changed’ – Indian English idiom resulting from a direct translation from Hindi)
  • She’ll be apples’ (‘everything will be alright’ – Australian English)
  • box of fluffy ducks’ (‘everything is going my way’ – New Zealand English)

If the above idioms are used by a particular speech community and is code-specific to those peculiar to a place or country, then should we teach these idioms to our EFL students?

If your answer is yes, which ones? And why?

Would you teach these idioms only for receptive purposes or would you encourage your students to produce them? What are the dangers of this?

How do you decide which idioms to teach?

How about the use of the word ‘Whatever’ in the dialogue above?

It doesn’t really mean ‘anything that…’; nor does it mean ‘no matter what’.

It carries the illocutionary force of ‘I don’t care’ or ‘That’s your problem, man!’ to show indifference or dismissal.

Although it started out as a code-specific slang word, it is now used globally, perhaps due to the dominance of Hollywood.

Could any of the above code- or community- specific idioms gain international recognition too?

Please go here to do my little poll on idioms and share your ideas and beliefs on teaching them.

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Allow me to end this blogpost with this little piece of irony for us all to chew on as we go to bed tonight…

 

When asked, many of my learners say that they want to learn idioms because it makes them sound more native.

But more often than not, idioms are either used inappropriately, inaccurately, or simply overused.

 

Case in point: When John McClane in Die Hard 3 hears the building supervisor saying that it was raining ‘dogs and cats’, he immediately susses out that the building supervisor was not Amercian, thus leading him to conclude that he was German and belonged to the villain’s gang.

 

In trying to sound more native, learners end up sounding less native.

What a dilemma!

 

References

Seidlhofer, B. (2004) ‘Research Perspectives on Teaching English as a Lingua Franca’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, pp:209-239.