Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Zooming Ahead

by AJ

Ive got one student ("J"), in my low-intermediate class, who is zooming ahead of the others. She's acquiring vocab, grammar, and fluency much faster than the other students. She also seems to be having a much better time. In class, she is always laughing and smiling.

This student is delightful to teach. When she comes to class, everyone brightens. She is very much the polar opposite of the hyper-stressed, textbook memorizing, slow learning students Ive described in other posts.

This student does a great deal of self-study too. But instead of reading grammar textbooks, she listens to authentic English on an MP3 player. She always has her MP3. Sometimes she listens to music, sometimes to audiobooks or conversations she's downloaded. Walking to school, sitting on the bus, during work breaks, walking around the city... she's always got the MP3 player-- listening to English.

She presents a wonderful case-study contrast to Z., my grammar-nazi. "J" and "Z" are equally motivated. They are equally intelligent. Each comes to class regularly. Each puts in a great deal of self-study, outside class.

Z. is progressing slowly. She's very pessimistic about her chances of learning English. Her fluency has not improved much. In social situations outside of class, she feels "incompetent".. and so she avoids them. Z. is highly skeptical of my comprehension-based activities. She complains that we should be learning more grammar. However, Z. has studied grammar for 8+ years in her public school system. Each day after class, she reads through her own private English grammar textbook and does the exercises. She does this maybe 2 hours a day. [If she hasnt consciously mastered English grammar through this Herculean effort, I dont know what it takes]. Z. feels totally disconnected from American society and culture... hoping that one day in the far future she will master English and be able to (finally) engage Americans.

J. is very optimistic about her English progression. Her fluency has made HUGE strides in the past couple of months. She is very confident... so much so that she got a job as a waitress- where she must use English. She says she often has communication problems, but views these as learning experiences... rather than proof of her own incompetence. J. completely avoids direct grammar study (she had plenty in public school as well)... her self-study methods focus solely on comprehensible input. Rather than concentrate her listening efforts in a big chunk, she disperses them throughout the day.. 15 minutes here, 25 minutes there. J. loves the comprehension-based activites we use in class. She is fascinated by American culture. She loves hip-hop music and dance. She loves movies. She has friends and engages Americans as well as she can.

There are many lessons here. Of course I believe J. has a superior linguistic strategy to Z's. Eight+ years of intense grammar analysis has not translated to superior grammar PERFORMANCE, nor to greater fluency, nor to greater confidence, nor to more effective communication.

Beyond this issue, I think that J's "non-linguistic" issues play a huge role in her superior performance. Z. is constantly anxious... and we all know that anxious students acquire language far more slowly (if at all). J. is optimistic and enthusiastically takes risks. When communication problems arise, she does not internalize them ("I suck at English")... rather, she uses gestures, writing, circumlocution, and other strategies to adapt and keep communication going. Z. does the opposite. Even in the safety of the classroom, she's extremely sensitive. If I dont understand what she says... if I, for example, ask her to repeat herself... she immediately becomes depressed. Often she will not answer me again. She looks down and goes silent. She takes her "failure" as proof of her incompetence.... and the utter hopelessness of mastering the language.

Finally, J's fascination with American culture is an important factor. Much research on fossilization points to social-identity factors as a primary cause. In other words, if the student doesnt identify with the culture.. is not enthusiastic about joining it... their accent, grammar, and vocabulary will often fossilize. Progress halts. On the flip side, a student who eagerly wants to join the target culture... who finds it interesting... who can identify/appreciate elements of it.. will often progress much faster and will often avoid fossilization. Z. obsesses about the mechanics of the language, but has little to no interest in American culture (and thus, at a subconscious level,.. no compelling reason to master the language beyond doing well on standardized tests in her home country). J. is excited to be here and desperately wants to communicate, make friends, and join American culture. She cares very little about language mechanics... except as they relate to furthering her communication goals.

J. and Z. present two extreme cases. And, of course, there are no absolutes. However, I believe they are excellent archetypes to ponder. I believe they represent the major trends Ive seen in English language acquisition.

[And as an end note, J. is inspiring me to get off my lazy butt and make a stab at Spanish again. She makes language learning seem fun, exciting, and interesting!!].