I have been an English teacher for adults for a long time and, one of the remarks that boosts my pride as a teacher is when they say that they enjoy learning English with me, that they don't feel stupid when having to articulate an English phrase in front of me. On the contrary, it is disheartening to hear: ¨I can't, Begoña; I will never be able to learn English¨, and they mean it.
These days I'm teaching a friend English and the task is becoming Mt Everest climb somehow for him. I am using resources that go beyond the usual methods and approaches, since I understand that his impotence to break through is fully related to having no confidence at all in a likely success.
Of course, one's ability to learn another language counts dearly in the progress being made but the total lack of confidence simply weakens the chances from scratch. I never found myself in such an extreme situation, and I'm racking my brains on how to instill some confidence so that he doesn't quit. Mind you! I'm talking about someone who is a pro in his work; a very intelligent person whose experience and knowledge is so valuable in his profession. This is my second (I should say our second) attempt to tackle the task. I've driven myself away from any textbook or the standard steps usually followed when teaching beginners; no way to use total immersion in English (that was my first attempt and it ¨scared him to death¨); no way to say ¨you must study by yourself¨, a key factor in the learning process, because he hardly has time off as his profession takes up most of it.
How to proceed then?
Well, I've decided to be the one riding the bike for the time being while I'm having him sitting behind. I hope that by doing this he will stop thinking that he will fall off the bike. I'm using both English and Spanish, introducing questions (and encouraging answers) which are related to our surroundings, and explaining grammar-bits depending on the needs for those questions/answers. Regarding the emotional factor, I'm constantly appeasing him, persuading him that we can get there, -yes, we can-, not letting him build up in his mind the disheartening ¨I will never make it; I will never be able to learn English.¨ I'm not even using the verb speak here for I think he has convinced himself over the years that he's hopeless at learning English, and will never be able to speak it. His convinction is right now a solid wall against which he is constantly bumping himself. Therefore, I think it's better to focus on the learning process itself, not the goal.
Furthermore, this hopelessness has resulted in his belief that something must be wrong with him.
Many Spaniards who were taught French at school in the 70s and 80s find themselves cheated somehow nowadays. The world revolves around the English language and they feel excluded. To make matters worse, English is being used as a key factor to shortlist candidates for a job, disregarding the real need of the language for that specific post, which increases their despair due to the scarcity of work and the fierce competition. Parents are set into repairing this error in their children's education by sending them to bilingual schools, by having them introduced into the English language at the earliest age, in the belief that their kids' inability to speak English will never mar their future. They hope to prevent their children from feeling dismal as my friend is feeling now. Unfortunately, when it comes to repairing their own incompetence a great number feel that the last English train departed a long time ago.
What's my point in sharing this present teaching experience with my readers, be it teachers or learners?
To the teachers I would point out that we cannot standardize our students with reference to their learning process. In essence, we, as teachers, have our own method or approach to teaching and we try to create a rapport with them in the hope that progress will be quicker rather than slower. We tend to think that if a student doesn't succeed the blame falls mainly on ourselves; however, I see the binomy teaching-learning as a give&take game we play with our students and there should be an agreement regarding the rules between both parties so that goals are reached. The ongoing trust between teacher-student must be a fact. There can be as many different approaches as students and we need to reassess our own in the teaching process. It is true that teaching one-to-one lets you adapt yourself to your student's pace more easily than teaching a group, but the group cannot be treated as a block, as one single mind. There are different styles of learning and we must find a balance in the classroom so that we can prevent dropouts or disappointments. We need to make each student feel that we are teaching one-to-one within the group.
To the adult learner I would say that a language can be learnt at any age by anybody. What's needed is to be realistic when setting our goals. We need our own needs' analysis and visualize both time and space. Our time of dedication to the task and our own space (our background and surroundings) and depending on these two variables we should adapt our goals and proceed with our learning. We need the teacher to help us find the right track if we feel we can't see it ourselves, after all the teacher is the expert. We need constant encouragement; learning a language is not like learning how to cook a recipe or how to use some new software for our computer. Once we start learning a language we make this task a life companion, somehow. Thus, we need to reset goals now and then so as to avoid frustration. Realistic goals will make us see that we have achieved something, that we are riding the bike ourselves, even if we still need some guidance, or some support so as not to fall off.