What they’re doing wrong

Aussie 지 has been hanging out in Seattle; we went to the Pig Iron, the Ballard Locks, did a drive around Capitol Hill and Columbia City/Mt. Baker.  We tried to go to Rookies to watch the USA match in the World Cup but we ended up watching it at Empire Espresso.  Later we went to Kerry Park.  Today I met her for lunch at Umma’s Lunch Box.

Sometimes I when I meet regular, normal people who are neither teachers nor language learners, I find myself trying to describe why people are so bad at language class.  It’s a huge downer, including for me, so I end up having to check myself, dial it back a little.

I love learning languages, and I love showing people how to do it.  If I could spend my days with people who want to learn language, that would be amazing.  I might work for free.  Ok, maybe not free, but you know what I’m saying.

Unfortunately I don’t always get ideal students.

Of course, I’m a high school teacher, so there are all kinds of difficulties that teenagers are working through, and I don’t begrudge them for those things.  Developmental and maturity issues, learning differences, regular teenage angst, hormones and squirminess; those get a pass from me.

The things that prevent language learning are not at all limited to teenagers; I would say that the majority of the university and adult classes that I’ve taught have the same issues. I will call these issues The Paperwork Gang, and Personal Cloud of Dread.

The Paperwork Gang are the people who have no intention of learning language; they’re just there to do the required paperwork to pass the class.  They are annoyed at any suggestion that they internalize the target language or make it part of their lives.  All they want to do is hand me the damn paper.  The problem with the paperwork gang is that they keep repeating the same mistakes; no personal investment equals no progress.  I have to keep grading the same mistakes, and it’s just a giant waste of everybody’s time.  Later they conclude that the target language is just “hard” and/or that they’re just “not good at language.”  The most frustrating part of it is that the people in the Paperwork Gang think that they’re being good, they think they’re doing it right.  They’re doing all the work, it’s just hard.

The truth?  The truth is that the price of going through the motions is a) a disappointing grade and b) NO LANGUAGE LEARNING.  The students come to my office saying “I’ve done everything I’m supposed to but it’s just hard, what should I do?  I’ll do anything!”  I tell them the only right answer:  go practice speaking with someone; anyone.  They leave my office dejected, because practicing is the one thing that the Paperwork Gang absolutely refuses to do; practicing is too much of a personal investment.

The other problem, the Personal Cloud of Dread, is not mutually exclusive with the Paperwork Gang.  In fact, there are plenty of students with both of these problems.

The people with the Personal Cloud of Dread are the people that show up that learning is painful, and that they are incapable of associating any joy with language learning.  They say things like “no pain no gain,” and “I’ve really just got to knuckle down” and “memorize.” They act like every single word they learn is as step closer to death, and they just suck the joy out of the room, as if they were marching off to defend Greece from the Persians.

I’ve seen all kinds of reasons for the Personal Cloud of Dread. Some heritage learners feel ashamed for not learning their heritage language, and they treat language class as a shame vortex, rather than an opportunity to learn.  For a lot A LOT of non-heritage learners, they go through class with the idea that learning–especially language learning–requires absolute joylessness; that joy and fun are necessarily the opposite of learning.  I design fun, learner-centrered, light-hearted activities for them, and they find ways to make it excruciatingly boring.

I’ve been told that language is not fun, that grammar is not fun, that learning is not fun. They look at me and tell me to my face.  I say out loud with words, “No, you are not fun, you failed to make it fun. You don’t know how to focus on learning and keep it fun.  This is is YOUR FAULT.”   They don’t like it when I say that.

Anyway, I don’t know how people with the Personal Cloud of Dread following them around can learn anything; they’re as doomed as the Paperwork Gang.  When they ask for help, I tell them “change your horrible freaking attitude,” but that’s usually no help. They don’t want an attitude adjustment.

What they don’t know is that these two problems are the MOST IMPORTANT THINGS about language learning; a positive attitude and a willingness to practice, make mistakes, and focus on correcting those mistakes.

Anyway, that’s what I’m facing during the school year; that’s what can get me down.  The science teacher once asked me, “Doesn’t that KILL YOUR SOUL”?

“Yes.” I said.  Yes, it kills my soul.  Thank God for summer break!

 

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