Language is Not Only What We Know, It’s What We Do
Students often tell me they wish they had started learning English younger. While there is evidence suggesting that children do find it easier to acquire languages than adults, this does not leave much to act upon. However, there are some interesting psychological phenomena and analogies we can use as a starting point. Research in developmental psychology suggests that there is a link between the development of our earliest memories and language acquisition. Most of our early childhood memories coincide with language development, meaning we don’t generally remember much before the ages of 3-4. This is something called childhood amnesia and it tells us that there is a link between the development of our concept of self and our language. Anecdotally, as children, we begin developing ideas of who we are and what we want; and language gives us the means to act upon it.
Some people seem to retain this simple driving principle into adulthood. I’ve had students who felt very self-conscious about their level of English, yet they would tell me that their spouse or partner speaks even less and somehow always manage to be understood on a vacation abroad. This is the child principle in action – they need something and they use the tools they have to achieve it. They do it regardless of the situation they are in, they don’t analyze it excessively and most importantly, they don’t overly worry about being judged. And here comes the real problem – there are students who perform well in class, but the moment they think about the upcoming conference call with their boss and the new business partner, their confidence and progress disappear almost instantly. Similarly, fairly high-level students would stumble when asked for directions in the streets. So how do we, as teachers, address something that happens outside of the classroom in the classroom?
To begin answering this question, let us summarize what we already know. Children, and some adults, are motivated to use language to gain fulfillment, and this is not dependent on any specific context, for instance, a classroom setting. To many others, this poses a struggle and is subject to interference, creating barriers and hindrances. In either of these cases, if we do something long enough, it forms a habit. Habits can be extremely useful – they allow us to do things quickly, easily, automatically. To illustrate this, our posture is actually a habit too. It is not akin to a rigid state, rather, it is a constant balancing act of our entire musculoskeletal system. Posture is constant action. But if we had to constantly think about it, we would not get much else done. Therefore, it is extremely useful that most of this happens unconsciously. Nonetheless, similar to the fear of judgment or context dependency in language learning, we sometimes get pain in our neck or lower back, or stiff shoulders. The great news is that we can address this, because posture is action, and action can be observed and changed. Bridging these two tangents, I would like to share a couple of case studies demonstrating how something as simple as observation can be used to change language-related habits and help our students treat language a little less like specific knowledge and a little more like a general skill.
My first case study is an HR professional who needed to brush up on their English for attending a professional workshop. One of the first things they told me is that they ‘know’ English, but they cannot speak it, they have a block. By speaking to the student in their native language prior, I got to observe that they have a very lively personality and a very pronounced, animated body language. However, the moment we switched to English, their entire demeanor would change. They would noticeably stiffen their neck and their lively and endearing head-bobbing would evaporate. When asked why they did that, they had no idea any of this was happening in the first place. This student also happened to speak Russian as a foreign language. When I suggested they try to say something in Russian, what happened was somewhere in between – not as lively as in the native language, but not frozen solid as in English either. So, I brought this to their attention – they are able to do something, speak a foreign language, without getting completely stuck. After this point, we began experimenting. Is it possible to say something in English while still allowing your head to move? Is it possible to speak in English while looking out the window, instead of in the notebook? Is it possible to have a conversation while walking? We began discovering that some of these small, specific changes began yielding results. Did the student improve from A2 to B1 level overnight? No. Did they discover that their speaking block is not permanent and unapproachable, and start acting accordingly? Certainly! In essence, my intention here is to convey how something unconscious can be observed, labeled and eventually, consciously changed, where the result of this process in the long run would be replacing the original habit with a ‘new’, better one.
I chose this example to begin with because it illustrates something that is relatively static and easy to spot. However, language, as most things in everyday life, is far from static. Quite the contrary, most things happen in a dynamic, fluid sequence. My second case study therefore looks at what can be done about with language that already exists in action. During some of my conversational lessons, and if the weather was nice enough, we would take it outside and go for a walk (even though I have tried this indoors as well). What I would notice is the moment my students could not remember a word, they would also stop walking. Similarly, when approaching a doorway or a corner, they would slow down almost to a halt. When asked why they did that, the answer was a shrug, they did not know. There is a group of people that exhibits a somewhat similar behavior. People with Parkinson’s disease. When performing a cognitive task in movement, the cognitive demand of the secondary task can sometimes make the motor symptoms of Parkinson's disease even worse. Vice versa, managing the motor symptoms, i.e. working on your posture, can impair cognitive performance. For most healthy people, making a dinner reservation over the phone while walking towards their car should be easy enough – not something they need to consciously think about. So why is this happening to my students? The answer is that there is no reason for it to happen. Walking and speaking do not even share the same pool of attentional resources (as in how it would be comparatively more difficult to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time than to draw a picture while talking about your dinner plans). Applying the principle from the previous case study, we could again start experimenting. Is it possible to just slow down instead of coming to a full stop? Can we change and control our walking speed while speaking English? Little by little, instance after instance, we can find ways to use observation to help our students expand the contexts in which they use their language and to give their language more and more practical, habitual, everyday uses.
Hopefully here we can see that it is possible to progress from isolated instances of static behaviour to more dynamic action and still observe the same latent principle. Is it however possible to take this yet another step further? My last case study hopes to illustrate here how we can not only observe the physical action, but also gain a glimpse of the cognitive process behind it. In practicing different language skills in the classroom, we may ask our student to read something out loud, summarize what they have read at home or perhaps to give a presentation. And we can all get tangled in the web of grammar, vocabulary, diction, fluency and speed. Alternatively, we can look at a different, yet very elementary aspect of verbal language production. Is the student talking AT you or are they actually talking TO you? Whenever I see my students speaking in a vacuum, I treat it as an indication that they are thinking about all the nuts and bolts of how to approach the task, instead of what the task is. And as before, if repeated enough times, a series of actions becomes a habit and we stop thinking about it. Luckily for us, this also means that we already possess the toolset to change this particular habit. One of the basic building blocks of our society, shared knowledge and personal identity is our ability to tell a story. Therefore, instead of asking my students to read a text, I ask them to read it to me, like they are telling me a story. Instead of summarizing a paragraph, I ask them to tell the person next to them what it was about. And instead of giving feedback incessantly, I sometimes delegate that task to another student(s). Using the latter approach, I was able to turn a paired role play into a meaningful group activity or introduce student-to-student interaction into grammar drills. Again, this does not make everyone miraculously more fluent overnight. But it does help to foster an environment of reciprocity, meaning and accomplishment on a deeper, more human level, which is precisely the end to which our language is a means to.
My hope in writing this was threefold. Firstly, to share the very thing I was talking about, my observations, and possibly inspire others to consider looking at their students in a slightly different way. Secondly, it is to show how a teacher’s personal background can be a resource to draw upon in their practice. My background is in psychological research and mindful movement techniques, but who is to say that a teacher with background in finance or business administration would not be able to bring novel, fresh insights and approaches for the benefit of their students. And thirdly, my hope is to remind us of the goal of what we are doing – our students’ language should not be something they know while in the classroom, it should be something they can do even when woken in the middle of the night. The case studies above are meant to serve as illustrations of how something we all possess can be applied to work with our students’ motivation, barriers to progress and confidence in a slightly novel way. As a supplement, not a replacement, to any coaching techniques or teaching methodologies that you may already be using. They are by no means established methodologies or explicit solutions to a specific problem. Some students may take to this naturally and benefit from it, while others might find it too far out of their comfort zone. It may also be easier to experiment with it in one-on-one settings, with the real challenge being finding ways how to translate it into group work. The origins of this approach, mindful movement techniques, themselves often tend to focus on individual lessons rather than group work. In trying to expand on something like this, it is my belief that teachers are uniquely positioned to think of new ways how to adapt it better to groups. And if there is really nothing else, it may just be food for thought and a reminder that it is never too late to start thinking outside of the box again.
Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.
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