Language learning: Mistakes are so important

I have favorite age groups and levels of ability when it comes to teaching people English. One of them is the ages between 7-9. These are kids who are old enough to know better, but young enough to happily do dumb things with you in class so long as you show actual enthusiasm for it. As students get into the preteen age, you see them slowly and inevitably start to withdraw as they try to figure out what on earth is happening to them. Understandable, we’ve all been there. (Unless you’re five, in which case, I’m amazed at your reading skills.)

But unfortunately, it can cut into their language learning in some ways, especially when a few get hit particularly hard with the need to Play It Cool.

I was this kid; in German class I learned how to say “I don’t understand”, “I don’t know”, and “I don’t speak German” early on so I could deflect any questions the teacher asked me. My teacher at the time was gracious enough not to press the issue. But looking on it, I regret it because of what else I might have been able to learn if I had tried.

I find myself facing the situation as an instructor, and don’t think I’m nearly as gracious.

Teachers appreciate the student who speaks up every time, even if there are mistakes, because then we can help you say what you want to say. If you say nothing, we have no means to help you, and so your skills just… become stagnant.

So, with that in mind, I want to give a shout-out to all the people out there who attend language classes but, for whatever reason, find themselves unable or unwilling to speak up in front of classmates. I’d also like to give a little reassurance/advice:

Mistakes are actually a really important part of learning a language. Think back on when you were a kid. The plural for cat was cats, and for dog was dogs, but for mouse wasn’t mouses, so an adult in your life likely had to correct you on this once or twice before you got it down. It’s normal, and nobody will make fun of you for saying something goofy in a language class.

Saying something, anything, will help you and your teacher more than hiding away. If you don’t get the grammar point, ask for help. If you don’t know the vocabulary, do your best to say a word similar to it, or ask if you can peek at a dictionary. Gesturing, drawing a picture or, at the very end of it all, asking if you can say the word in your native language are all other techniques. Don’t give up until you have the word you’re looking for.

I’d like to share a story from when I was learning Japanese.

We had started with a warm-up question about rules for the road. Don’t drive too fast, wear a seatbelt, etc. I was following along okay with it, or so I thought, as someone described what you shouldn’t do on a sidewalk. Suddenly, the teacher turned to me and asked me a question. Thinking we were still discussing sidewalks, I said something like, “My neighborhood in the States doesn’t have sidewalks, so we had to walk on the road and it was dangerous.”

Everyone started giggling.

I was confused until a friend pulled up her dictionary on her phone and showed me the word I’d used for sidewalk: it was actually the word for sunburn. The teacher had changed the subject earlier and been asking if people in the class easily get sunburn.


I tell you what, though, I’m never forgetting either the word for sunburn (日焼け) or sidewalk (歩道)!

What’s your language learning mistake story? What do you wish you’d done more of when you were learning a foreign language? If you’re a teacher, how do you help coax students out of “playing cool”?

Tape recorder, debate partner, or something in between?

Happy October, everyone! I hope the weather is to your liking– it certainly is to mine. I’m having all the hot tea, all the time. It’s lovely.

Anyway, so, teaching! Particularly in ESL/EFL. I’ve taught a wide range of ages since I started, from toddlers up to senior citizens. Every student has their own expectations from their teacher, be it the bare minimum, or something exceeding the usual classroom duties. I’d like to share two experiences I’ve had with students to highlight this.

Continue reading “Tape recorder, debate partner, or something in between?”

“It’s better if the teacher can’t speak the student’s first language.” Really?

I’ve been in the teaching game since 2011. My experience is mainly teaching Japanese students, along with a smattering of Chinese and Korean folks who are based in Japan. Several times now, I’ve come across the belief that “Native English teachers shouldn’t be able to speak the learner’s first language. It’s better that way, because then the learner will be forced to communicate only through the target language.”

Not “teachers shouldn’t speak the learner’s L1.” They “shouldn’t have the ability” to do so.

I find this to be a very strange distinction, because of course the goal is to get the learner to use the target language as much as humanly possible in a given lesson. This means if the learner straight-up asks me, “How do you say 海外 in English?” I answer with, “Can you explain the word to me?” The learner then comes up with something like, “Well, not in Japan. In other countries.” At that point I can say, “Oh! Abroad!” and that’s the end of that. The learner has not only learned the word, they have “earned” it by explaining in the target language what they wanted to say.

And surely, a teacher is capable of doing that regardless of whether they can or cannot speak the student’s L1, aren’t they?

Maybe this is a cultural thing purely rooted in Japan, but let me ask you: have you come across this belief yourself, or do you believe it? What are the benefits on either side?

Let them talk

Hey guys. How’s your new year stuff going? Good? Terrible? Same! I’ve been doing quite good in the reading department, and have been exercising almost every day. Go me.

That’s not what I’m here to talk about. What I’m here to talk about is how I view English conversation lessons as they pertain to me.

Disclaimer: everyone teaches differently, especially when it comes to teaching a language. This is just my experience. Yada yada.

We good? Awesome.

So, since coming to Japan I’ve taught the gamut of ages, from toddling kidlets to folks who’d been retired for a decade or more. It’s been an interesting experience because every age group brings their own strengths and desires to the classroom, and you have to react accordingly. For kids I find that they react a lot better when we play a load of games- the more active, the better. For adults, helping them figure out how to share their political views can be challenging- especially when they’re voicing opinions about your country! 

Whatever the case though, when I see other teachers with students one thing kind of bugs me- how much the teacher talks about situations the students don’t understand.

Imagine you’re a beginner student hoping to pick up a second language for work or for an upcoming trip. You go into class and, in the target language, the teacher says, “Have you heard about [this conspiracy theory]?”

You shake your head, and thus begins a thirty minute lecture you can barely understand about something you can’t quite grasp. Wasn’t there a lesson for today?

Mind you, there are students out there that love that kind of thing. At the right level, they’ll get into it- asking questions, scribbling down notes, the whole thing.

But other times, you see their eyes glaze over as they politely nod along to the teacher’s words, waiting for it to be over.

If you’re new to teaching OR are used to teaching in a particular style, it’s easy for this to happen. Especially in a land like Japan where students are often taught in a lecture setting where you don’t interrupt the teacher- you let them do their lecture and if it’s not interesting to you, you wait it out by doodling, napping… The usual shenanigans when kids get bored.

I dunno about you but I feel pretty cruddy if a student falls asleep on me.

But let’s say you really want to share that conspiracy theory or that news about the celebrity or whatever. What can you do so they don’t roll their eyes and pull out a comic book?

Here’s what I find works:

Me: Hey student, did you read the news yesterday?

Student: [answers either yes or no; if yes, I press them about what they remember. Then,]

Me: What do you know about [topic]?

Student: [answers again. Sometimes they know all about it, sometimes they have no clue.]

Me: Well, according to the news [blah blah blah]. 

I give the student a chance to react, then ask them questions on the topic depending on their level of interest. If they’re keen we’ll go into more detail. If not?

I move on. I’ll save the topic for another audience.

Fellow conversation teachers, I get it. I really do. Teaching similar lessons day in and out can be super boring. But that’s why you get the students talking about what they like. If you only discuss what you’re into, you’re only going to bore yourself further. 

Let them talk. Let them practice. Let them share.

Let them learn.

You might learn something yourself in the process.

Classroom dramas: Betrayal!

In my first year of teaching, I had a class of two kindergartners, a boy and a girl. Let’s call them S-kun and M-chan, respectively. They got along okay, and liked driving me nuts because I didn’t know how to handle two five year olds who just wanted to play games. (I still don’t, but that’s not the issue here.)

About six months into teaching these guys, a third, older girl entered the picture. She was six years old and we’re going to call her Y-chan. Y-chan was a blunt, to-the-point sort of girl with strong shoulders who was ready to Work with a capital “W”. She answered everything I said in English in full sentences and liked singing the songs we learned outside of class, embarrassing her mother thoroughly in public. The other two kids seemed to tolerate her okay, but all of that changed one fateful day.

S-kun was sick, leaving the two girls to work with me in class, and M-chan was worried for her friend. She was subdued during the lesson as a result.

Next class, S-kun was back, a bit sniffly but none the worse for wear. He walked into the room and M-chan lit up like it was Christmas, preparing to greet her good buddy. Then, this happened:

M-chan: :D! :D! :D!
S-kun: ….Huh? Wait, where’s Y-chan?
Me: She’s sick today, she isn’t coming.
M-chan: :D…. 🙂
S-kun: *ignoring M-chan* Oh no! Is she okay?
M-chan: 🙂 …. :/ …. 😦 ….
Me: She’s fine.
M-chan: D:< !!!!

The slow transition from joy to pure vitriol on her face is something I will have a very hard time forgetting.

From then on, their friendship was damaged. Every time S-kun tried to open his mouth in class, whether it was to speak to M-chan or to me, M-chan would clap her hands over her ears and complain that he was bothering her.

The funny part was, Y-chan was completely unaffected by all of this nonsense. As stated before, she was in class to Work and she would not be distracted by this silliness. As a result, while M-chan tried to scowl her into submission, Y-chan’s ability to completely ignore M-chan’s attempts at aggression caused them to become good buddies.. and left S-kun more than a little baffled.

Man, friendship is rough when you’re a kid.

Playing Counselor

In my job I get to meet a lot of people from all walks of life and all ages. It’s fun because you never know what’s going to happen in a given day until you walk in the door. (That can also be a bit terrifying, but hey, hazard of the job of an English Conversation Teacher.)

However, once in a while you plop down, ask the student how things are going, and they respond with a, “Well, my spouse is currently in the hospital, my child failed to get into the high school we wanted and my parents are ill.”

Then you glance at your schedule and realize you’re one-on-one with this person for the next two hours and realize: this will not be a teaching session, it will be a counseling one.

Teachers adopting additional duties is nothing new; in every culture across the world they don’t merely teach you math or history. They also provide guidance to students who need an extra nudge, acting like a babysitter or, in extreme cases, almost like a parent toward the kids they’re helping. The sad thing is, a lot of us don’t really get training or a chance to mentally prepare how to handle a situation like this.

Never mind handling issues that other people are experiencing; I’m barely equipped to deal with my own! And I imagine a lot of teachers are in the same boat as me, whether they’re working full-time in a public school or in a university or in a conversation school abroad. But you do start to realize a few things as to why this happens, especially in that last case.

First off, it’s “safe” to vent in a second language. The student feels that whatever they say, nobody else in hearing shot is going to be able to understand it, so their feelings are private. This is even with others walking by who also study the same language. In addition, in many of these schools there is the illusion that you, the teacher from another country, can’t speak the local language, so who are you going to tell? In that sense they know that whatever they say won’t go beyond closed doors.

Secondly, most of these people are not looking for advice or help from you. I have never had someone bluntly ask me what to do after sharing things with me. Instead, they want an ear. Make sympathetic noises, try to distract them from whatever’s bothering them, give them something fun to chat about for an hour, and you’ll have more than done your job and they’ll leave the class having unloaded a bit.

Thirdly, it’s hard to see these situations coming, especially if you’re in a situation where students don’t have a set schedule for attending classes. Even if they do come to class regularly, they might seem perfectly fine one day, then spill their guts to you the next. Take it in stride as best you can and try your best to get back to the lesson at hand as soon as there’s a lull in the venting.

Again, most teachers are NOT trained for these situations- including me- and there are so many variables on what you might experience. As best you can, know your students, know your school, and worst case scenario, know how to flag someone else down to come in and help you if anything happens that makes you particularly uncomfortable.

Ten points to…!

I have a habit in my adult classes where I like to give arbitrary points for them doing something I approve of. For example, the first student to open their textbook to the correct page gets “twenty points”. The student who forgot their textbook loses “eight thousand points”. Whoever gets up and erases the whiteboard for me wins “two points”. There is no rhyme or reason to it, the students are aware it’s complete nonsense and most laugh politely at my silliness.

The source of this point-giving is thanks to my being a Harry Potter fan. I don’t like to say I’m a major fan but the longer I live on this earth the more I realize how much it’s affected my life. As a result, inevitably toward the end of the school year, when a student does something that pleases me, I’ll say, “Ten points to Gryffindor!” and wait to see what the reaction is.

This year, I said this to a younger student, a twenty year old man with a dark complexion, dyed red hair, and glasses. The student brightened, puffed his chest out, and looked expectantly to his classmates.

“Did you hear that? I’m Harry Potter!” he announced.

Thus spurred the Great House Conundrum where everybody in this adult class wanted to know what Hogwarts House I’d place them in, whether they’d read the books or not.

I want you to imagine a group of ten or so Japanese people, a mix of men and women ranging from eighteen to forty-five years old, all crowding around a blonde foreigner demanding to know their House.

Conversations mostly went:

Student: What about me? What am I?

Me: You’re a Hufflepuff.

Student: Hufflepuff! I’m a… what’s a Hufflepuff?

Me: …

It’s one of the little things in teaching that bring me joy, are these people who are so interested in even the dumbest things I have to offer them.

Teachers are like detectives

Take it from the students’ point of view.

Imagine you’re learning a foreign language and just barely have the pleasantries down–hello, how are you, my name is, etc. You’ve never practiced with a native speaker before, but you’ve seen television shows where they did their thing and wow, can they talk fast. You’re about to walk into a classroom with one of those people. How on earth are you going to keep up with something like that? How are you supposed to explain you don’t understand? …How many times can you say you don’t understand before things get awkward?

So you’re sitting there in this classroom and the teacher comes in, all smiles, but that’s just because they’re paid to do that. The pleasantries are exchanged, and then suddenly they’re asking you to… read things. To pronounce things.

It’s hard. You can’t figure out how on earth they differentiate between Rs and Ls, or why on earth you need to learn something as hard as “observation tower” right this second. Hasn’t anyone told this person you’re a beginner? So you go on the defense; you shorten your answers as much as possible, you do as you’re asked and not much else just to survive this lesson.

The worst part happens during the end of the lesson: the free talk. The part where you supposedly use the grammar you learned today, but the possibilities of other topics popping up are nigh-endless and you just want it to be over so you can go home.

“So, what are your hobbies?” your teacher asks, leaning forward in their chair to gaze at you intently.

Your answer is one sentence. You imagine that’ll be the end of that; the teacher will nod and say it sounds interesting, then ask a different question, and that’ll lead to something else you have to-

“Oh really? My friend does that over in the next town! I’ve been wanting to try it too,” the teacher says.

Wait, what?

“Actually, I have a question about…”

You blink.

They’re interested? And not only that, they’re interested enough to know something about your hobby and ask about it?

You straighten your posture in your seat. You cast about in your head to find an answer.

The teacher seems delighted. They start taking notes on what you’re saying. “So it’s like this?” they ask, showing you the paper.

You smile and shake your head. “No, it’s….”

You show them.

It’s awkward; you don’t know most of the words required to share the specific details in this foreign language. You have to gesture and fumble a lot. But the teacher, magically, comes up with the words, writes them down for you, confirms they’re what you want to say. Something’s opened up, and you’re scrambling for every scrap of the language you know to show them everything you know.

The ten minutes are quickly over.

Have you experienced something like this? I have, but mostly as the teacher. I once had a student who could barely answer the question, “How are you?” telling me all about her calligraphy certification once I found out that little interest of hers.

It’s a skill that I think more than just foreign language teachers possess; it’s an ability to tap into something that’ll make the other person lean forward, scribble notes intently, and make an effort on their part to reach out to you in the same way you have to reach out to them.

I’m not saying I’m great at this yet, but I will say when a student promises to see you next week and strides out with their head high, you feel like you’ve not only taught a lesson, you’ve solved a case.

Good job, detective Stefanie.

Go get the next one!