On Learning a (very!) Foreign Language
For a couple of months now, I’ve experienced what it feels like not to understand a single word people say around me, not being able to read signs or chat with neighbors, not to know how to make simple requests or share basic personal information with others. Unfortunately, since I will only be in China for 3 more months, I can’t say that I will learn a whole lot of Chinese. I have, however, already gained invaluable insights into what it feels like to be so vulnerable when you cannot a common language to communicate. I am discovering what kind of language learner I am, and it is extremely entertaining to try new ways to hopefully end this journey in China with a few useful expressions under my belt. More importantly, I’m hoping that this self-discovery process will ultimately benefit my future students and make me a better teacher.
Some people assume that because I speak more than one language, I must be a good language learner. I wish that were true, but this is actually the first time I’ve had to start from cero learning a foreign language. It seems to me that being a good language learner is more about figuring our what works for you and how you like to learn. As a foreign language teacher who is now learning a language, I think I suffer from the disadvantage of overanalyzing what I am doing and setting unreasonably high expectations for myself. It’s funny how I would never expect my students to remember vocabulary or concepts immediately after they come up in class, yet for some reason, when I first arrived in China I started to get a bit down at the fact that it was taking me so long to learn basic things, like the numbers from 1 to 10. In fact, it took me almost 4 weeks to learn these numbers (and sign them), but now I think I’m a lot more patient and persistent than I was when I first got here. Also, it wasn’t like I was practicing them every day. I was avoiding learning them because it just seemed too hard at first. Being able to finally able to count from 1 to 10 to the ladies playing cards outside of my building was so rewarding though! Maybe I’ll learn how to ask if I can play with them sometime. So what if it takes me a while to learn new words and expressions? At least I will eventually learn something if I don’t give up.
In the past few weeks, I’ve discovered that I learn better from using the language immediately and figuring it out myself. I also, to my surprise, need a lot of repeating out loud the same words over and over. Getting some basic grammatical explanations was useful to figure out the negative and interrogative forms, but I don’t think I’d do well just talking about the language. They mainly serve as that final “click” if it’s taking me too long to notice a pattern, like it did with the particle ‘ma’ for questions in Chinese.
The people I try to learn from and communicate with the most are street vendors, the women at the grocery store, and the cleaning crew at the school. They’ve been the most willing and patient with me. Best teachers so far. Sometimes I repeat what they say over and over. Other times, when I get frustrated at not understanding something and I really want to know what it is that I’ve been repeating for a while, I record what they are saying using my iPod and ask a student to translate it for me later. Using some translation has been the way in which I’ve been able to cope with not understanding a lot, but still getting some information that would be impossible for me to access with my lack of Chinese language skills.
What’s been amazing to experience too is the value of getting meaning from context. Depending on where I am, I’m starting to feel like I understand what is being said (if it’s basic, of course) and that’s only because I get it from the context we are in. It doesn’t matter if I don’t know the words, but if I can match gestures to expected behaviors, then I am able to answer yes/no and do what I need. I think sometimes we might not give students enough opportunities to try and practice identifying meaning from context in class. To me, understanding the general meaning of what is said by use of context clues has been helpful because then I don’t feel like I need to understand every single word. Instead, I can focus on learning one or two useful words from the exchange. Sometimes I feel like a little kid, but that’s precisely when I try to relax and tell myself, “You are like a little kid right now, enjoy it!”
But now, what’s the lesson learned as a teacher?
Well, for one, I think if I were ever to teach beginners, I would probably not frown upon translating a bit –something I wouldn’t have accepted before. What I would do though is try to incorporate opportunities for students to reflect on how they feel learning the language and what they think works best for them. If they were beginners, students would need to do this reflection in their first language. I still think, however, that it could be really beneficial to personalize learning strategies and not feel forced into learning only one way. We all communicate and relate to the world in such different ways, why try and learn how to BE in a new language by following someone else’s style?
Finally, as a teacher, I think it’s important to keep in mind that our experience as learners cannot be fully equated to that of any language learner. Many people learning English are immigrants in a country where they may experience discrimination and lack of access to employment or housing because of their limited language skills. The challenges each language learner faces also vary. Perhaps the biggest lesson learned is that if we want to help our students feel successful, we need to help them learn more about themselves and what they need in order to achieve their goals -sometimes that might also mean setting realistic expectations.