The vulnerability of language learning

Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability

I like the idea of collecting stories from people.  I originally studied linguistics because I was interested in people. Language is so fundamental in expressing  who you are, and as language teachers what we do is give our students the means with which to express themselves.  It is also necessary, as a good teacher (and by good I mean someone who effectively facilitates language learning), to learn about each individual student and who they are underneath often modest language skills.  Only in doing so can our students attach new learning to what they already know (learning anything can only take place when it builds on the foundation of prior knowledge).

So, Brené’s talk made me think of the stories behind the faces of each student in our classrooms.  While all are here to learn English, they also want something else she mentions – connection.  Most want to make friends with other students in their class, want to know about our social programme and want to see friendly faces among the Swan staff. Most have left families behind, or are struggling to relocate with family in tow.

And, most feel vulnerable.  Most want to belong.

I’ll never forget a very busy Monday morning last year.  I was alone as the ADOS was on holiday, and I had to do placement tests for scores of students arriving that day.  One student was hostile, to say the least.  He refused to even try the placement test or to cooperate in any way, simply sitting and waiting for me to have time.  Once the queue had died down, I managed to find a teacher who spoke a few words in his language.  It somewhat put him at ease enough for us to establish that he belonged in the elementary level class, and we sent him off – to be honest, glad he had been dealt with.  As the weeks went on, he became known as the smiler!  He was kind and welcoming to other new students, eagerly shared his culture with staff and students alike, and often popped upstairs to say hello to me, showing me photos of his children. Valuable lesson learned for me – on day one he wasn’t being aggressive – he was genuinely frightened.

And that is what it feels like, walking into a classroom, trying to do that very human thing – communicate – all the while getting to grips with a tongue that is foreign to you. Starting off in a new country, trying to find somewhere nice to live, to make your home.  Trying to make friends.  It is frightening.

So, how can we – both as teachers and as a staff member of a language school – do our best to facilitate the most important antidote to this fear, as Brené puts it, to give our students a sense of worthiness? After all, the research shows that you simply will not learn if your affective filter is on guard (described here as like a wall of anxiety that acts as a barrier to learning, lowering students’ self esteem). How can we promote a whole-hearted classroom?

The courage to be imperfect” – in the language classroom, you must embrace mistakes. You must be willing to make them, time and time again. You must take a deep breath and speak, out loud, to a classroom full of peers and your teacher, and listen to their feedback.  Not making mistakes when you are learning a language is a sign you are not making progress. But it’s hard.

Teachers, of course, can foster a friendly atmosphere in their classroom. They can invest a lot of time in getting to know their students.  They can stop talking to students learn that they are the ones who should be talking. As much as possible.

But being a teacher itself means putting yourself in a vulnerable position.  Standing in front of a group of people, day in and day out? It’s some people’s idea of a nightmare! What if a student asks you a grammar question and you don’t know the answer? What if you run out of materials? What if the students don’t like you?

Being a DOS or ADOS is a vulnerable position too.  Being a school director is vulnerable.  Running a school, creating courses, trying to bring our the very best in teachers so they can do their best for the students.  Giving teachers uncomfortable news if students really aren’t happy with their lessons. Talking to students who have caused problems for other students….

I believe our students are doing great things in their language learning.  I see them every day, with every emotion etched on their faces, coming to and from their class.  I feel their discomfort when they pluck up courage to speak up, and their joy and gratitude when they get something right, or even if they get it wrong, their joy at trying.  I believe each student tries as hard as they can. It is enough.  And for those of you who aren’t quite ready to embrace the necessary vulnerability needed to learn a language? It’s our job to work on that, together with you, as a priority while you are trying to learn the latest verb tense.

I think I’m doing a good enough job, too…:-)

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