Recently, I had the chance to sit into a Spanish as a foreign language class at the university that I work at. They needed volunteers to act as beginner students who were trying to learn Spanish in their teacher training program, so I volunteered. As I know very little Spanish myself, I definitely didn't need to 'act' like a beginner student. The class I attended was taught completely in Spanish, and it seemed like everyone else could understand what the teacher was saying better than me. When asked questions or given instructions, I really had no clue how to respond. This experience to me, an English as a foreign language teacher, was extremely beneficial in so many different ways, as for the first time in a long time (since probably grade 9 when I studied French) I was put into the shoes of our students. Sitting through this one class was a great reminder of some of the challenges that language learners face on a daily basis; challenges that can be hidden from teachers.
In this blog entry I want to look at some of these challenges, but not challenges that address the language itself. I think everyone knows grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc are very difficult when starting to learn a new language, but what I want to talk about are some of the emotional, and social struggles that students face when learning a new language.
Overcoming the Embarrassment of Failure / Building Self-Confidence / Courage
Perhaps one of the biggest personal obstacles that students face when embarking on learning a new language is the fear of failure. No one wants to make mistakes in life, however making mistakes is key to learning a new language. It takes a tremendous amount of courage for some people to speak up in class in their own language for fear of being wrong, and it takes even more courage to do that in a foreign language. And then when you do speak up, you receive feedback pretty quickly that you were either correct or incorrect. When we are correct, it's very easy to continue trying, when we aren't...well for some people this is where language learning stops. It is crucial that teachers (1)let their students know that mistakes are OK, (2) encourage their students to participate (3) respond carefully and correctly to their students' mistakes. Moreover, it's so important that teachers create a classroom atmosphere that is supportive and safe for all students.
For me, sitting in this Spanish class, I had absolutely no confidence in my Spanish ability. There were other students and teachers present in this class, and I absolutely felt uncomfortable in this setting. When I was given instructions in Spanish and still didn't know what to do, it was embarrassing, even though this wasn't a real class setting. Not only that, I could see how students could become frustrated when learning a new language, which leads me to my next point...
When learning a new language, not only do students not understand what is being said to them, but they also cannot express themselves in that new language. They may not be able respond to questions, ask their own questions, ask for help or even articulate how they feel. The delay required to respond or the struggle to verbalize personal feelings can really jeopardize learning, as students may easily become frustrated or lose motivation. Speaking of motivation....
Staying motivated to learn a new language is another huge obstacle that students face. First of all, learning a new language is tough and progress can be slow. Many students when they first encounter how difficult it is to learn another language can easily become overwhelmed and frustrated.
Second, learning a new language takes a lot of practice outside the classroom. Like any new skill, practice is essential to get better at it. A lot of people believe they do not have the time or energy to commit to studying. Moreover, finding someone to practice with, that speaks the language you are trying to learn, isn't always possible. Lastly, unless students have a real passion or an important reason to learn a new language, studying can quickly become "unnecessary" for students. For example if you are an American who speaks English, studying Japanese part-time in the US, you can easily get to the point where you question is it really 'worth it' to study Japanese. In your daily life you probably never speak Japanese, so you wonder why am I trying to learn Japanese. Staying motivated in these types of scenarios is very difficult.
To really master a language, you must always become familiar with the culture and traditions of the people who speak that language. For many language learners, the differences between their culture and this new one can be dramatic, and grasping this new culture can bring about more challenges to learning a language. One example of cultural difference (and struggle) that my students have told me about is the relationship between teacher and student in the classroom. In many countries, a teacher-centered approach exists, where the teacher lectures and the students just listen. Students do not question this, because of the high reverence teachers have in their society. When taught by me, a Canadian, they thought the class would follow a similar structure, but really I wanted my class to be something much different. Some students may not be speaking out in your class (which is so important in learning a language) because they do know that they should be. Cultural differences like this can definitely play a role in inhibiting learning.
There are also so many cultural subtleties that exist in a language itself. Let's use humor as an example: If a language learner is talking to a group a native English speakers, and the group suddenly laughs while the language learner speaks, but he/she doesn't understand why, this can create anxiety within this person. This person might wonder if they were the laughing at his/her grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, and so on. This unfamiliarity with humor or other cultural subtleties can really impact the self-confidence of any language learner, which ultimately will affect the ability to master a language.
Struggles with cultural differences are multiplied several times, when language learners leave their countries to study a language in a foreign context. Not only are students encountering cultural differences in the classroom, but they are forced upon them when they leave the classroom. Students travelling to learn a new language often face feelings of anxiety, isolation and homesickness. As previously mentioned, when students are unable to communicate their feelings with those around them, the difficulties are multiplied once again
My hope in writing this blog is to raise awareness of some of the non-academic challenges that language learners face on a daily basis. As a teacher, we sometimes forget about these type of issues as we get distracted by the academic performance of our students. I truly believe to be able to successful teach our students we need to keep in mind the struggles that our students may be experiencing.
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