Sunday, 18 March 2018

The politics and dilemmas of foreign language learning

We language teachers – or many of us anyhow -- deal with  students of all ages and backgrounds and with a different potential for learning and making progress.

One issue with which I have frequently grappled is whether students of a foreign language, especially children and teenagers, can overcome the obstacle of insufficient knowledge of the world and lack of familiarity with concepts which they are called upon to first grasp in the foreign language.  The problem is further exacerbated by unreasonable demands placed on learners in the form of formal examinations to be sat or proof of language production for grading purposes. It seems to me that those and similar constraints slow down real learning, which can only occur at different paces determined by the learner’s motivation, age, intelligence, maturity, general level of education, command of the mother tongue, support of their environment and other contributing factors.

There is a number of questions raised by the issue, which defy a definitive answer:
Can a child living in an environment poor in stimuli rise above the limitations imposed by their circumstances to grasp ideas and meanings in the foreign language? How much depends heavily on their education in general? Much, I would say.
How does a language teacher cope with such inequalities in a class? Assuming that the teacher is familiar with the student’s mother tongue, should the teacher attempt to illustrate the concept in the first language before proceeding to use it in the foreign language? How much time this involves is closely related to the nature and the difficulty level of the concept.
I will offer an example of a concept which my students often stumble upon. That is the idea of “consistency” on multiple levels: consistency in a system, in applying the law, in spelling, in laying down rules, in performance, in quality, in writing. My approach to the problem varies depending on the level, the age and the capacity of my students for understanding.

A simple technique I resort to is that of inconsistent spelling: “commercial”, “comercial”, “kommercial”, “commerciall”. I thus clarify the meaning of a positive word by providing instances of use of its negative.

If the concept is beyond their grasp for any reason or combination of reasons, I simply circumvent it by means of a short explanation and make a mental note of it so I can deal with it later. (My students spend a few years learning English with me, which gives me a certain degree of flexibility.)

However, poor language skills in the foreign language are often the direct result of poor language skills in the mother tongue. For instance, learners whose input (books, articles, stories) either in the first or second language is minimal can hardly be expected to appreciate –let alone, make use of – a variety of linguistic devices and registers in order to articulate their thoughts or emotions in either language.

My position is slow down learning for those who can’t catch up, redefine short – and long-term targets and harmonise the class so that different learners are enabled to achieve their full potential rather than using high-achievers as the yardstick of performance.

Of course, there is also the question of the teacher being willing to further enrich their own knowledge so as to keep up with a constantly changing world and familiarise themselves with new technology and theories of learning, which will be instrumental in creating a better-informed learning environment and capitalising on up-to-date resources.

In conclusion, it saddens me to think that politics, social inequalities or pure bigotry stand in the way of effective learning suited to the needs and ability of individual learners.


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