Observations part 2 1

Observations of an elementary language user: Part 1

Reflecting upon my experiences in Germany as an elementary German user, my last blogpost (Observations of an elementary language user: part 1) pondered upon the teaching mantras that we as language teachers sometimes follow unquestioningly. 

I wondered if we ought to place that much importance on getting speaking practice with native speakers and having native speakers as role models. It also questioned the pre-determined lexical syllabi that coursebooks often assume are suitable for an elementary learner of the language.

In this post, Part 2, I’ll be questioning some more of the mantras of learning and teaching that often are taken at face value. But let’s start from where we left off – pre-determined lexical syllabi.

Observations part 2 2

Unquestioned mantra:
Grade your language. Teach the lexis for their level.

During my trial lessons with an online language course provider, I was taught lexis like ‘kite’ (I’ve never flown one), ‘to scramble eggs’ (I still don’t know how to ask for a cup of tea or a beer), and ‘the fish swims’ (Do you know any fish that doesn’t?). It got me thinking about how…

  • you will not see the lexis ‘supply’ at elementary level but you might see the word ‘deliver’;
  • you will definitely not be taught ‘procurement’ but perhaps you might come across ‘purchasing’, although the two words are not exactly synonymous;
  • assets’, ‘liability’, ‘stock market’, ‘benchmarking’ are words often not deemed to be appropriate for an elementary learner, but words like ‘desk’, ‘stapler’, ‘shoulder’ and other less abstract proper nouns are.

The reality:
Who decides what lexis is suitable at each level?

We sometimes forget that learners of a second language are not the same as the young learners of a first language. The concept of the ‘stock market’, and ‘assets and liabilities’ might not be easy for a child to grasp, but adult learners of a second language already have those concepts in their first language. There is no reason to keep this lexis from the users.

We should not treat our learners like children.

Each individual is likely to have different needs for the language and is most likely to learn, and want to learn, the words that they will encounter most often, and will forget what is unnecessary.

A business person working in the department of procurement is much more likely to be needing words like ‘supply’ and ‘assets’ right from the beginning.
Although I was an elementary user of German, words like ‘Schwangerschaft’, ‘Hebamme’, ‘Kaiserschnitt’, ‘Tragetuch’ and ‘Stoffwindel’ which certainly wouldn’t have made it into a German elementary coursebook, turned out to be the most useful words I could possibly learn.

Observations part 2 3

Unquestioned mantra:
Eliciting is good. We don’t give you answers because we want you to figure it out for yourself. That way, you’ll remember it better.

The reality:
Yes, eliciting is good. But there is such a thing as a bad elicitor.
As a learner, eliciting can be extremely frustrating when

1. I simply don't know the answer because I haven’t been taught and have never come across it.

Teacher:     What is the woman doing?
Me:            Uh….The woman is making eggs?
Teacher:     Making eggs?
Me:            Uh…Preparing eggs?
Teacher:     Preparing eggs…but how?
Me:            Huh? I don’t know…
Teacher:     How is she preparing the eggs?
 Me:           I don’t know…
 Teacher:   *tsk tsk* She is SCRAMBLING the eggs!
 Me:          Scrambling?
 Teacher:   Yes, scrambling!

2. I am expected to state the absolute obvious, all in the name of language practice.

Teacher:    What does the fish do?
Me:           The fish swims.
Teacher:    Yes, but finish the sentence…. The fish swims…?
Me:           Huh?
Teacher:    The fish swims in milk?
Me:           Oh! No…the fish swims in water.
Teacher:    Say, ‘The fish doesn’t swim in milk, the fish swims in water’.
Me:           *frown* The fish doesn’t swim in milk, the fish swims in water.

3. I am expected to engage in a game of ‘Read the teacher’s mind’.

Teacher:     What’s the man doing? (referring to a picture of a man in the passenger seat of a car)
Me:            Uh….The man is doing….um….no…not…no (I haven’t learnt   the word for ‘nothing’ at this point)
Teacher:     The man is…?
Me:            The man is…???
Teacher:     The man is not…?
Me:            Huh?
Teacher:     The man is not driving the car!
Me:            *grimace* (I could name you a whole list of things the man is not doing in that picture!)

Observations part 2 4

Unquestioned mantra:
Even if you don’t speak it well, the locals will be pleased if you just make an effort. Even if you don’t get it perfectly right.

The reality:
Language is power.
In the end, it all really depends on who the locals/native speakers are, where they perceive the elementary language user is from, and their attitudes towards that country/region.

Very often, if the elementary user is perceived to be from an equal or more successful/developed/’civilized’ country, a small effort to speak the local language on the part of the elementary user will be met with great welcome and congratulatory pats on the back.

If the speaker is perceived to be from a less powerful, less developed or less liked country, he/she might be seen to be an economic immigrant in the country, possibly even there to just benefit from that country’s wealth. An attempt by such an elementary user to speak not so perfectly could be met with annoyance and disgust.

I have noticed significant differences in the reactions towards me versus my English friends living in Germany and our attempts at speaking (elementary) German…

Observations part 2 5

The unquestioned mantra:
Learners should commit themselves wholeheartedly to their language learning process and take responsibility for their learning. They should come to class everyday on time, do their homework, and seek out opportunities to actively use the language everyday.

The reality:
We are not just language learners. We are doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants. We are also mothers/fathers, wives/husbands, daughters/sons.

So when we think of language learning and teaching, it shouldn’t ever simply be a question of accepting mantras and following the supposed accepted norms. Just like we teach our learners to think critically, we, too, should be thinking critically about what we teach, how, and why.

Perhaps we are so consumed by language teaching and learning that we sometimes forget that our students might not be. In my last year in Germany, I’ve got married, been on honeymoon, been pregnant, worked as a freelance English trainer, written English teaching materials, spoken at several conferences, had a baby… So while some people are shocked by the fact that I haven’t learnt much German despite having lived there for a year, I say…

Hey, sometimes life just takes over. And that’s okay.

Observations part 2 6



About English Teaching professional’s regular blogger:

Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.

A self-confessed conference addict, she spends a lot of her time tweeting (@chiasuan/@ETprofessional), Skyping, and writing. You can find out more about her on her blogsite: http://chiasuanchong.com