Do you ever think back to the way you learnt a foreign language and how it was taught? What about if you are learning one now? Is there anything you can gleam for your own teaching? Read about Chiara Bruzzano’s journey of her own language learning and how she now understands it through the lens of Second Language Acquisition, to see why such language learning can help teaching.
A lot of language teachers are or have been language learners too at some point in their life. I have always thought this was a plus, and not just for ‘non-native’ teachers: once you’ve been through the struggle and joys of learning a foreign language, you will be more in tune with your students and you will be more familiar with their difficulties.
But language learners are often unaware of what’s going on when they are learning a language: until I started studying for my MA TESOL, I myself was blissfully unaware! However, in the past few years, I have made a point of taking the time to explain to my students the basics of Second Language Acquisition in the first lesson of every course. This helps them understand and monitor their learning, and it is something I wish my teachers had done with me when I was learning English.
As a language learner, have you ever had that feeling of a lightbulb going off in your mind – an aha moment of sorts when you thought “Oh, I get it now”? Did you also misunderstand the lyrics of Spice Girls as a tween only to realise you got them wrong and continued to sing them wrong for twenty years? Let me take you on a journey of some of the things that happened to me as a learner of English and what I now know them to mean based on my understanding of Second Language Acquisition research.
Lightbulbs going off in my head: noticing the grammar
- What I did then: It was one of the most satisfying feelings ever: after seeing or hearing something and not really paying it any notice, you suddenly notice it and understand how it works. This happened to me a lot with grammar and more complex vocabulary. One example: the present perfect. I know, I know, it’s a classic, but hear me out: the ‘started in the past and continuous in the present’ verb tense doesn’t really exist in my first language. So finally seeing it and getting it after my teacher tried to explain it a hundred and one times was the best feeling ever.
- What I now know: These were likely instances of noticing and noticing the gap between my language and the target language (Schmidt, 1990).
‘Chicken is too easy’? Mishearing songs and the power of mondegreens
- What I did then: In short, and without much shame actually, back in the day I was be a diehard Spice Girls fan for a couple of years. In my early teens, who wasn’t? However, what Spice Girls didn’t account for when they thought they’d rise to global stardom by singing in English is that I only started learning English aged 11. So that was a little inconvenient for me at the time, and part of the reason I only recently realised that there was probably little scope for them to be singing that ‘chicken is too easy’ in their song Wannabe, but they actually meant ‘taking is too easy, but that's the way it is’.
- What I know now: This was one of many instances of the so-called ‘mondegreen’ phenomenon, which I learned about in Richard Cauldwell’s 2018 fabulous book on decoding in listening. A mondegreen is essentially a mishearing. It can have many causes, most of which have to do with bottom-up decoding. Because of the repetitive nature of songs, they can get ingrained easily and you may only realise you’ve been singing a song wrong after many years (and many embarrassing karaoke performances). Mondegreens are so common that it took me 0.2 seconds to find a list of Spice Girls-themed mondegreens – check them out!
The right role models at the right time, and the importance of motivation
- What I did then: Having made it into my profession for twelve years now, it feels strange to remember that I actually did not like or even do that well in English when I started out. Having never learned a foreign language before, I found it tedious and felt it was not something I was ‘cut out for’. What changed things completely was the arrival of a new English teacher in my second year of middle school – she quickly became a role model of what I, as a fellow non-native user of English, could become, and she fostered a love for languages that I still have to this day.
- What I know now: Role models are key to the formation of our self-efficacy beliefs and our motivation. As I explained in ‘Can I do this? Self-efficacy and language learning’ self-efficacy is the extent to which we believe that we can execute the behaviours necessary to succeed in a challenging task, such as language learning. Teachers who serve as role models can provide two important sources of self-efficacy beliefs: vicarious experiences, in which we observe others succeed in a task, and verbal persuasion, in which others convince us that we are capable or incapable. Teachers can also serve as role models for the formation of learners’ ideal L2 selves (Dörnyei and Ushioda, 2009). Indeed, if students have a clear vision of who they are going to be as an L2 user, they will be more motivated to pursue their language learning goals. All things considered, it’s unsurprising that I’m still thankful to that teacher to this day!
Growing up without foreign languages but still with translanguaging practices
- What I did then: I was always fascinated by how people from different areas of Italy spoke dialects so different that they could barely understand each other. I did not grow up listening to any foreign language per se, but I did grow up around lots of different dialects. I would sit and listen to how people in my family continuously switched between ‘standard’ Italian and local dialects, foregoing the Italian completely when in the presence of my beloved grandma, who never learned it and only spoke her dialect. Believe it or not, my first ever language teaching experience was probably trying to get my grandma to learn to say ‘teaspoon’ in Italian.
- What I know now: These were all wonderful examples of translanguaging practices, which are all part of how we use languages and regional varieties in a plurilingual environment.
What experiences have you had as a language learner that you later understood through the lens of Second Language Acquisition? Let me know in the comments.
Caudwell, R. (2018). A Syllabus for Listening – Decoding. Birmingham, UK: Speech in Action.
Dörnyei, Z. & Ushioda, E. (2009). Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Schmidt, R. W. (1990). ‘The role of consciousness in second language learning’. Applied Linguistics, 11 129–158. Oxford: Oxford Academic.