14 October 2012

Learning not to understand

My English classes at the moment are mostly in mixed-ability sets, and the level of English varies dramatically between one student and the next. It has long been my policy to blame the teacher for the students' failings, not the student, and I have been taking that to mean that previous teachers have failed them, and that it's my job to make up for it, not theirs.

I've tried to reassure them that it's OK not to understand, and that they should tell me when there's a problem.

Standard practice in the monolingual language classroom is to head to the weakest students shortly after setting the task to re-explain. But before I get there, someone has translated the task. And as the lesson continues, the weak students carry out the actual task in French. They receive the task in French, they carry out the task in French, and then they wonder why they aren't learning any English. Friday's lesson wasn't about practising interrogation techniques (I doubt any of my biology students are going to become detectives) but about asking questions in English.

I'm now fighting with myself over whether I actually can blame the students this time. Is it a lack of explanation, a lack of teacher effort in making them feel comfortable that is to blame here? But it's hard not to blame the students if they say things like “bonjour”, “ça va”, “merci” and “au revoir” to their English teacher – honestly, a little bit of effort would be nice.
I am reminded of the difficulty I have of saying “thank you” in certain circumstances. If I'm holding a conversation in a foreign language when I buy something in a shop, or get on a bus, I find it very, very difficult to thank the shopkeeper (or driver) in English. When I start a new language, I make the resolution to say the simple things in that language all the time. When I started taking short courses at the Gaelic college, I would thank the kitchen staff in Gaelic, even though I couldn't order the food in Gaelic. I can exchange pleasantries in a handful of languages I don't speak, because I forced myself to do it.
Because if you're not going to do the easy stuff, how the hell are you going to learn the hard stuff?
Anyhow, last night I was at a friend's leaving party. (Yeah, I've hardly been here two minutes and already one of the few friends I've made is leaving. Murphy's bloody law.) Everybody else was Corsican or French, so a native French speaker. I managed to keep up with the conversation... more or less. The “more or less” might be very important here, because there were definitely things that I didn't understand, but I pretended to understand in order to keep the conversation flowing.
The experience was rather similar to my experience as a Spanish learner in the world's best city for learning Spanish: Edinburgh. I have lost count of the number of times I found myself in parties where the Spanish speakers outnumbered every other demographic in the room. Naturally we spoke more Spanish than English, and I sometimes got a bit lost, but I didn't let every missed word derail the conversation – I kept it going until I could get back on track. This normally worked, and over time my Spanish improved to the point where I could hang about at these parties and get mistaken for a native (a fact I sometimes get too smug about – pride comes before a fall, and all that).
I'm not a fan of theories of “silent periods” or “assimilation”, but I know there comes a point where you have to accept your limits and put up with them. If you always fall back on your native language when things get tough, if you can always fall back on your native language when things get tough, why should your brain ever see the need to use the new language?

This reminds me of another anecdote I've probably mentioned here several times: Gaelic song concerts. As a learner, I went to lots of them, and over time I found I was listening less and less to the Gaelic, to the point where I eventually stopped trying to understand it altogether. Everything – everything – was said twice: Gaelic first, then English. My brain worked out that the path of least resistance was to wait for the English, and my Gaelic was in no way improved by the experience.
But how do you get that across to a bunch of university students? How do you get them comfortable enough in not understanding everything that they become functionally capable in English? Is it too late for the final year students who still say “merci” every time I hand them a worksheet? And, perhaps most importantly, to me at least: who's fault is it really...?

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