English

Belief sits at the heart of language learning (but fear is what rules)

Posted on 4 min read
Street art in a neighbouring village to the one I teach in. Fear is ever present in language learning.

It’s not the most welcoming environment. Even when there’s a blue sky outside, the corridor remains cold. The child opposite me wears a coat. I say child. He’s fourteen, when I was fourteen I didn’t feel child-like at all.

 He tells me he hates history. I nod, I’ve heard this story before. It’s a symptom of one of the Spanish government’s ‘wonderful ideas’, as if Spain didn’t already have enough confusion about its own history already. This is a trilingual school so history here is taught in French.

How, the boy implores, is he supposed to write a page answering a history question in French? He can’t string together five French sentences. There is anger lining his voice, but also defeat. He thinks it is impossible. He believes he will fail history

The thing is… I don’t believe him

I listen and at no point say, ‘you’re wrong’. For him, this is a serious and painful topic, so I avoid smiling, despite finding it delightful how as he rants about French his English begins to flow.

I sympathise with his teachers

I doubt that they’re going to fail him in history. He’s bright. If he’s going to fail, then half the class is doomed. And the teachers don’t like to fail half the class, it looks bad on them.

Imagine though, training to be a history teacher, and then the job market changes. The best positions are going to those who can teach in a foreign language. You’re raising a family, working full time and add language classes in the evenings. You pass your exams, but when you’re teaching you feel the difficulty of expressing yourself. You can’t tell stories anymore. Humour doesn’t work. The classes struggle and get lost.

It’s not an easy role to take on.

But my focus is on the student in front of me

I don’t believe that he can’t write a page in French. He’s been studying that language for at least eight years. That’s seven years and seven months longer than I’ve been studying Spanish and if push came to shove, I could write a page on a historical topic in Spanish. If you gave me a few weeks I might be able to do it in French too.

I admit, I would need some verb tables if it was going to be in the correct tense, but I could write a page. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would exist. I could do it. A handwritten page is only a few hundred words.

The boy however believes he can’t and that’s a problem

Without belief he’s going to sit, uncomfortably, on the splintering green chair in his classroom. He’ll stare at a white piece of paper, pen in hand, and write as little as possible. Tension will squeeze his stomach. A metallic taste in his mouth. He’ll grip his pen tight.

If grows up to be like the twenty-something-year-old Spanish young men I know, then this fear will follow him into the future. When faced with a live, fast-speaking, slang-using French person, he’ll panic. His fight, flight or freeze response will wipe out his French language skills. His brain will scream ‘abort’.

I know this feeling

I spent years learning French at school. Yet the only thing I can ever think of to say is ‘Je ratisse avec un râteau’ which I learnt working on a French farm. I can’t pronounce the phrase because I have never mastered the damn ‘r’. The sentence means ‘I rake with a rake’, and is, more or less, useless.

I’ve seen this same mind blasting fear make sweat drip from the foreheads of wide-shouldered, swaggering teenage boys. I’ve witnessed it time and time again. I’ve felt it myself time and time again.

The opposite of fear is belief

Shortcuts don’t work.

Yes, a few shots of tequila or a bottle of wine can help. I know some women who go from being unable to construct the present simple to being comfortable with future conditional after a drink. Men, typically, need a glass or two of beer, and for all the women to scarper. But these children I teach aren’t looking to only be able to speak whilst intoxicated. They need language skills for job interviews.

They need to belief in themselves

  • The child needs to believe he can speak French.
  • The teacher needs to believe they can teach in French.
  • Because without belief, everything becomes dredged in a thick gloopy fear.

Which would be sad, because this bright, articulate young man could do with a decent history education.

So, the next question is, where can you get belief from? (Or why is my Italian and Spanish better than my French)