Archive: On language learning

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A cynical mood front has been gathering in my teacher brain of late. Perhaps it’s because, when I ask my friends who speak good English what their strategies were for learning, they shrug their shoulders. “Study? I guess,” they say. “I just kind of stuck at it.”

Or perhaps it’s because my dentist speaks better English from listening to BBC Radio 4 than many do after years spent in classrooms, or even living in English-speaking countries. In any case, I’m starting to lose faith in theory.

A woman learns English using everyday examples

There are many perspectives on how best to learn a language (National Geographic 1918, via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s no shortage of theoretical moths batting about the EFL flame, that’s for sure…

* It’s all about exposure to the target language without the pressure to respond: “Put the banana in the box Taro. Well done. Now put the melon on the floor, behind Shohei. Excellent! That’ll be 30 quid please.”

* It’s all about using the target language in a relaxed environment: “Take a seat in the big brown massage chair. Let’s read dialogue number 4. Oh Mavis, what lovely shoes. Are they new? … There now, wasn’t that easy? You’re very clever. That’ll be 30 quid please.”

* Negotiation of meaning should take place in pursuit of the completion of a mutually interesting task: “OK, so there are poster paper and pens at the front of the classroom, so let’s all wast-, er spend ninety minutes drawing a map of your hometown. When you’re finished, present in pairs. Make a list of the similarities and differences. I’ll be in my office. Don’t forget to pay on your way out!”

* Linguistic responses can be automaticised through a series of questions and responses that were written in 1900: “Name six things besides cigars which should be kept in a dry place… Describe all that you could procure from an ideal penny-slot machine… OK great, you can pay at the reception desk.”

* The teacher should say as little as possible, so the students are in control of the target language: “. . . . . . Teacher, what we should do now? Ah… Monkey? No… Pray? Ahhhh…?”

What’s the one unifying feature of these methods? Why, their democracy of course! Their promise to all that if they only show up each week and… What’s that? Money, you say…?

Ah yes. Money.

English language teaching is an industry, and a rather successful one. In fact EFL teachers are the UK’s sole remaining export industry. As a result, rival theories spring up all the time, selling to bright-eyed future globetrotters and world-changers and sunken-eyed hunchback EFLers alike. Siren-like, they shimmy, beckon and seduce, yet all offer hope that, at the end of that road, however long and winding it may be, all will be able to master English, to talk with poise and confidence at embassy receptions and bring up bilingual babies who will spell the end to war and discrimination forever more, ushering mankind into a new post-Babel golden age in which no Taro will be unable to effectively box a banana on receiving said instruction from his teacher.

This, in my experience, is a lie.

Successful language learners are those who care, and those who can. Motivation and aptitude. I wanted to learn, I kind of stuck at it, it sort of made sense, and now here I am.

It’s either that or Radio 4. Which gives me an idea…

From here on 21st April 2013.

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Archive: The causes and effects of intelligence

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I like learning. And I like teaching. But until I taught, I never thought about what it meant to learn, and how differently we do it.

We learn differently as people, and we learn differently based on how we’ve always learned. I’ve sat through explanations that were crystal clear in the eye of the explainer, but which made me feel like such a fool. I’ve probably given a fair few too. Hazards of the profession.

But the cultural thing, that gave me a fresh surprise of late. I don’t think I’d ever really questioned the principle that you never put someone on the spot unless they are capable of doing the task, unless they know the right answer, could be a model to others. But then I read this.

A Japanese classroom

The scene of Kousuke’s triumph (possibly) – by Bobo12345 via Wikimedia Commons

The writer describes an American researcher’s shock, in a Japanese maths classroom of the late ’70s, at seeing the only kid who couldn’t get his 3D cubes straight called to the board, his mounting anxiety as the boy continued to fail, his certainty that any minute, the boy would dissolve into tears. And his astonishment when, at the end of the period, the boy got it right, concentration dissolving into a smile as the class dissolved into applause. Kousuke had got it!

For all my alleged cultural smarts, this was something I had completely failed to pick up on. But once I thought on it, I realised that this is something that I’ve encountered in Japan, just without recognizing it. And every time I’m called on to do it, I just freeze. You see, sometimes in my drumming group, I’m asked to do something, badly, in front of everyone. And every time, I, like Stigler in the article, feel so nervous I can’t possibly concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing. My palms sweat, it’s hard to grip the drumsticks… it feels like an ordeal, and I’m glad when it’s over.

Like Stigler, I feel a little bit like I’m being bullied. Like I’ve been singled out for the dunce’s cap. And I feel this despite knowing that these are not people who would do that. They’re not sadistic. They’re just trying to help me learn.

When I was growing up in the UK, it was inevitably the brightest who were called up to the board. And while it should feel like praise, it felt no less awkward than Stigler did sitting in the back of the classroom perspiring on Kousuke’s behalf. Why could that be?

The answer may lie in another idea in the article, this time courtesy of Professor Jin Li. Li has spent a decade recording the conversations of American and Taiwanese parents about their school life, and has come to the conclusion that where parents in America tend to attribute success to smartness, Taiwanese parents speak of practice, persistence and struggle.

I’m ever-wary of grand generalisations, with their tendency to gloss over individual differences and slide neatly into stereotypes. East vs West is a neat catchphrase, and has been exploited too many times by people with nefarious agendas to have any real meaning. And I’m certainly not about to suggest that Japanese classrooms are perfect.

But here’s what I do think it’s important to take from this. If smartness is a cause, is inherent, it’s fixed. You either got it or you don’t. Smartness as the result of effort is something each and every individual can control. Being singled out, in these two situations, then becomes a very different proposition: show us how smart (or not) you are so everyone can hate you and/ or laugh at you vs stick at this and you’ll get better at it. Studies have been done on just these two mindsets, and found no correlation between mindset and school success until students encounter a challenge or setback. And it’s there – the change of school, the move to university, the task you just can’t get your head around, Kousuke’s 3D cubes – where it pays to try harder, try another way, get help, and not to say “I’m just not cut out for this”.

So next time I’m put on the spot, I’ll be channeling Kousuke*, in search of my untapped potential.

* Kousuke’s real name probably isn’t Kousuke. Sorry.

From here on November 29th 2012.