The Chronicles of a Language Learner
I have made a career teaching students how to speak “my” language. Yet, after 6 years living in Zurich (the German speaking canton of Switzerland), I still could not really speak theirs. Determined to change, I switched roles and went from a language teacher to a language learner. In doing so, my perspectives and approach to teaching changed. Through my many ups and downs, here are some things I learned along the way.
You need a village to learn a language
When I finally acknowledged that my German hadn’t really improved I was overcome by more emotions than one might find in your typical episode of a Spanish telenovela. I was a mess. I felt stupid, lost, frustrated, and worst of all, dependent on those around me to translate, to explain or to help with things that I was theoretically capable of doing but lacked the language to do so.
As a child of immigrants to the US, I witnessed firsthand how one’s second language (or lack thereof) can be restricting. My maternal grandmother, for example, spent the first 25 years of her life in Italy, the next 27 in Argentina and 41 years (and still counting) in the USA. She speaks Italian and Spanish yet only knows a few words in English.
Even though she moved to the US at 52, she does not think it was her age that impeded her from learning English. The community she surrounded herself with in the USA either spoke Spanish or Italian. As she recalls, in this community, she was not encouraged to learn English, she did not have to learn English so she didn’t learn English. Today, her inability to speak English is what she regrets most. She remains dependent on others to assist her with the day-to-day basics.
Her case is not unique. Purdue University’s study (Living and Working in Ethnic Enclaves: English Language Proficiency of Immigrants in U.S. Metropolitan Areas) on immigrant communities in the United States shows that immigrants who live and work in immigrant enclaves (where they only speak and use their L1) don’t learn their new home’s language. While this seems very commonsensical, as an immigrant, it is an easy trap to fall into.
Similar to my grandmother, I did not need to speak German. I worked as an English Teacher and lived in a multicultural, multilingual city where everyone (and I mean everyone) spoke English. The Swiss took pleasure “practicing” their English with me, so like my grandmother, I had no encouragement to improve.
Luckily because of my grandmother’s experience and now her regrets, I knew I needed to take a different path. I started actively seeking expats who moved to Switzerland and successfully learned German. Once I found them, I clung to them and analyzed anything and everything they did to learn German. I continually found these expats had the same common denominators that led to their success. These included the community they had around that expected them to learn the language and supported them in the process.
If you are teaching immigrants, find out (through surveys, one-on-one discussions, etc.) how your students are using the language outside of the classroom. In cases when students are only in communities that predominately speak their L1, brainstorm ways students can involve themselves in their new communities i.e. getting involved in extracurricular activities (sports, church activities) where they are forced to speak English.
If you are teaching in countries where English is not spoken widely, encourage students to find ways to have to use English. For example, challenge them to convert their computer or cell phone settings to English, encourage them to watch TV and listen to music in English or even ask them to find online communities where English is used as the lingua franca.
Once I had my emotions in check, I decided to set some goals. Slightly overly ambitious, I decided to try to jump from the Common European Framework’s (CEFR) A2 (Pre-Intermediate) level to the C1 (Advanced) level in 1 year. According to CEFR, a student at C1 can speak, “fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions” and “can use language flexibly and effectively for social and professional purposes.”
While this goal seemed great, I soon realized that it was too impersonal, lofty, and intangible for me. I had to sit down and write out what I really wanted and needed and then break that down into very small, very measurable time specific goals. I used Bloom’s Taxonomy Action Verbs to help.
Using these action verbs, I made very specific, detailed goals for my self-study sessions. For example, one typical goal I often used was, “In the next 45 minutes, I would like to (1) read xyz article (2) highlight at least 5 new vocabulary words (3) write out the meaning, form and pronunciation of at least 2 words (4) use at least 2 of those words in my own sentence. ” Having these very short, measurable goals helped give me a sense of accomplishment. And because the goals were so measurable, they were also easy to aggregate and make into long term goals.
In all, setting my own goals was extremely helpful because the process helped me understand where I wanted to go and how I could get there.
Don’t only provide top down goals but rather encourage students to write their own goals. Even in situations where this is difficult (for example in exam classes) have students create at least one of their own goals beyond what has been established for the class.
Learn and then teach students how to use Bloom’s Taxonomy Action Verbs (see link above). This list is not only useful for writing goals, but also contains relevant, high frequency vocabulary that students at the intermediate level and beyond will need.
Don’t judge material simply because it has a cover
As a teacher, I almost always favored using authentic material (newspaper articles, TV clips, etc.) over an assigned coursebook. I thought coursebooks were boring and irrelevant. Surprisingly, when I switched roles, I sometimes found myself getting frustrated with all the authenticity of the texts I’d preferred as a teacher. I found the language in many of these authentic texts too difficult, especially as a beginner. Also, because I selected material from a very wide range of sources (newspapers, radio, miscellaneous pamphlets, etc.) I didn’t always have the chance to repeat, recycle or build from what I had learned. I would simply read an article, study its vocabulary and then move on, rarely reviewing what I had learned from that specific text. .
My German teacher suggested that I try using a coursebook and, when I did, I found myself loving it. Why? Firstly, the course book gave me some sort of structure and provided a portfolio of what I had learned. I knew where to go lesson by lesson, the language was both scaffolded and graded to my level and there were a lot of review activities throughout the book. I also liked the book because it focused equally on both productive and receptive skills.
Having the book did not mean that I abandoned using authentic material. Au contraire! Whenever I got tired of using my course book or felt de-motivated, I quickly opened the cover of Annabelle (my favorite girly Swiss magazine) to read something more enlightening (well, that is, if you find hair, makeup or fashion enlightening). Using both a course book and authentic material felt like the best approach for me. The book gave me structure and review while the authentic texts helped keep me motivated and see language that hasn’t been nicely sliced and diced for a coursebook, but rather what I would find in day-to-day real life situations.
Don’t just assume all coursebooks are bad. Actively search for good ones, check that the coursebook covers all the skills your students need, that the material is graded and scaffolded, and most importantly ask your students what they think.
In terms of how much authentic material vs. coursebook material you should be using, again check with your students and see their preferences. Secondly, what you select may very well be a function of the students’ levels. That is, beginner students may need to use coursebooks more (for the structure) while more advanced students may need more authentic texts and less of the training wheels that coursebooks tend to provide.
Lastly, whenever possible allow students to pick their own authentic material. Encourage them to use the same type of authentic material over and over again so that students can see the same type of language and vocabulary used repeatedly.
Test and retest
Tests tend to get a really bad rep. Based on my experience in the US school system, tests were often used for the sake of testing. Too much time was spent teaching students how to take the test while so little time was left to help students actually use the language. This, I think we all can agree, is not what teaching or testing should be about.
When I started teaching Business English to adults in Switzerland, I more or less abandoned the idea of “testing.” I thought formal tests were not really appropriate for the business students I had. I instead preferred gauging students’ progress with in-class tasks and review activities.
While I still think I was not entirely wrong taking this position, in retrospect, I do think testing might have benefited my students. As a language learner, taking tests helped me because it pushed me to review material and allowed me to see what I knew/ didn’t know. Additionally, as a student I had the chance to take the same test again and again and this is where I learned most.
Allow students to retake the same test over and over again so that they have the opportunity to focus on their errors and, as a result, improve. Tests can be retaken immediately after getting feedback but also again in the future as a way to assess what students remember and how they’ve progressed.
Please, pretty please, correct me
In contrast to tests, error correction seems to have a relatively positive reputation in the language learning world. Yet, in my opinion, it is not exploited enough. In a short survey that I conducted (consisting of 30 students, ages 18-65 from the Intermediate-Advanced levels) 82% said error correction was extremely important to them. And yet, when I observe teachers, too often they spend the bulk of the lesson focusing on the lesson plan and virtually none of the class correcting language errors that emerge from classroom activities.
As a language learner, I LOVED being corrected. Obviously there had to be some balance between fluency and accuracy, but every time I was corrected it felt like I was catching manna dropping from the sky. Both on the spot corrections and delayed feedback were helpful although I preferred delayed feedback because it was generally provided in written form therefore I could use this feedback in my portfolio and for review.
Spend some part of each lesson working with students’ language errors. I personally like to use the ‘What’s wrong’ sheet. It looks like this:
During students’ speaking activities, I listen to various students speak and write down 3-5 mistake that I had heard during the task/ activity. Later, I write these sentences on the board (left side of the sheet) and asked students to work first alone, then in pairs or groups to work out the error. Next, we review the errors together and discuss the reasoning behind the mistake. The ‘What’s Wrong’ sheets are kept in students’ portfolios and in the next lesson(s) the same errors are used in a review activity.
The magic of hard work
As language teachers, we seem to get swept away looking for some sort of magical tricks to help our students learn a language. While there are a lot of approaches and techniques to help students become more efficient learners, as a student I found something very magical about getting my hands dirty. I learned most when I spent time each day practicing, using, reviewing and studying German. I had to work for every single word and structure I learned. There was nothing really fancy about it–I needed my book, material, paper and pencil, a good eraser and lots of concentration.
Over the course of the year, I tracked my language level (gray bars on the chart) based on a language school’s online placement test which even though it wasn’t perfect, I think did a reasonable job at estimating my level. I also recorded the number of hours I studied German per month (blue line) and then mapped this data (see chart below). The result is pretty commonsensical – I progressed most when I studied (Jan-April), my level took a bit of a nose dive when the temperatures got warmer and my language class went on summer holiday. However, the minute I started studying again (went back to class, completed my homework), my level improved once again.
Make sure to set clear expectations at the beginning of a course about what you expect in terms of work (homework, self study time, etc). As a teacher, I used to think my adult students wouldn’t have the time to study and so I made homework and self study optional. The result was that my students didn’t progress as much as they might have.
Now, I set very clear and high expectations at the onset of a course. I expect students to complete their homework (regardless of whether they are busy businesspeople or not). I expect they come to class prepared. I remind them that if they don’t put any effort into learning, they will not learn. I like the idea of being firm and kind and I think they appreciate that too.
Emilia Siravo is a freelance ESL teacher in Zurich, Switzerland. She has the CELTA, DELTA I, DELTA III and SVEB certifications and received her Master’s in TESOL from The New School University. Emilia loves teaching and finds that second language learning enables students to open new doors, discover new cultures and explore new perspectives on life.