Monday, October 17, 2016

Language Learning, The Inner Battle

Learning Korean is making me a better English Teacher.

This might seem like a strange statement if you've never tried to learn an additional language, but if you're familiar with the feeling of helplessness that comes from the early stages of trying to communicate when you know nothing, then you probably know what I'm taking about.
The many books I have collected (so far) to teach me Korean things...
As I work to improve my Korean, I think I'm understanding what some of my students feel when they are sitting in the classroom and the teacher expects them to speak English. When I encounter situations where I have to listen and speak, I get anxious and nervous and fumbling through the simple sentences and words that I know I know. I've read that listening and speaking are generally the first skills picked up when learning a new language, but for me I'm more comfortable reading and writing. I have more time to think it through.

A foreign block of text can be overwhelming.
I must have gone through a similar process when learning French in elementary school, but I don't remember what it was like anymore. As a 6 or 7 year old, I doubt I analyzed my use of French vocabulary and grammar. Ha! The transition from non-speaking to speaking is all a blur... I do, however, remember not knowing the words and at times French-ifying an English word so that it sounded like it belonged in my sentences... Alas, that only got me so far.

As an adult learning a new language, I now find myself questioning how I managed to learn both English and French in the first place... Past-me, why do you make it seem so easy? Le sigh.

Here's a brief glimpse of the thoughts that swirl through my head when I encounter a situation in Korean.

My Inner Thought Battle:
  • There is that moment when someone says something to me and my brain scrambles to make sense of it. 

  • If I manage to understand, I feel a brief moment of elation--YES!--and then I realize they want a response. 

  • My brain stalls. Which words do I use? What grammar do I use? If I say it this way will it make sense?

  • Wait. How much time has passed now? Ahhhhh! They're staring at me. I think they've waited too long... they probably think I don't know. 

  • If I answer now, will it be awkward? What was I going to say again? 
Following these thoughts, I either freeze up or fumble through a sentence, feeling slightly defeated. The worst part is that despite the fact that I might have understood and that I do know what I want to say, I can't always articulate that to the other person. 

I wonder how many of my students are stuck in similar situations in class...  In my own classroom, is there too much emphasis on oral production and not enough on inner cognition? How many of my students feel the pressure of needing to answer quickly and then, as a result, feel like they can't think and put their ideas into the right words?

In practice, the exercises are short and controlled.
Now, as I stand before my students, sometimes I feel like I can hear those same thoughts screaming through their heads. There is that moment when their eyes widen and I can almost see the debate raging: do they have time to try and figure out what is being asked and response? Or should they glance to a friend, relying on a quick translation?

For me, this is an important reminder. Some of my students are so quick to respond that I sometimes forget English is their second (or third) language. And yet others are still fine tuning their listening and production skills. I need to be mindful of the inner battles raging within my students so that I can create a safe space where they feel comfortable relying on and improving their own skills. Am I talking too fast? Have I introduced words that they don't know yet? What supports can I put in place to help decrease confounding stress?

As I push forward in my own Korean studies, I hope that I can learn more about how I can help my students with their English. I hope that my revelation has been able to help someone else, too.

Love and Hugs.

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