One of my students told me after his two-hour class by videoconference that he felt very comfortable because he was able to follow most of it. Still he didn’t feel comfortable enough to speak at any time. He is at a beginner’s level but far from a beginner. I am talking about a middle-aged man who has been studying English almost his entire life but for some reason doesn’t think of himself as capable because he doesn't get the hang of it. I cannot help but asking myself why?
Coming from the Netherlands, I grew up learning English as a second language as well. However I feel like I’ve never put much effort into it. Somehow it just came naturally. That’s why I find it difficult at times to understand why others seem to struggle so much. Can you really blame it to the dubbed films, the badly taught classes or the lack of studying? In my personal opinion, it can all be part of it. But when I think of my own education, I cannot say that any of these reasons are the cause for not getting it.
I’d like to believe that anyone is capable of doing anything as long as one’s mind is set to it. So I asked him: “Do you think you’re capable of learning English and will speak it with confidence one day?
” He answered a simple “Me? Never
”. Never? Really never? Of course if you’ve been studying all your life a language, which you deem vital but have never really needed because you haven’t left the country, what would you think? And moreover, what am I as a teacher supposed to do now?
I wanted to change his mind and convince him that he’s also able to speak English. So I ended up comparing which usually goes a little like this:
I compare English with a sport.
I compare English with one’s studies.
I compare English with one of their own goals in life.
What do all these comparisons have in common? If the student hadn’t given up it was probably because he believed that it was somehow possible. That he can do it. This, I think, is key. If you don’t consider something possible, you'll probably give up, right? So why should someone study English without thinking that he/she is capable of doing it? For me that sounds like hell. It reminds me of Sisyphus rolling a rock uphill which knows will roll down right before he reaches the top. You don’t want your students to think of English as their Sisyphean rock though, do you?
So I reminded him that we have been speaking English for a full hour today. That he was capable to understand it all and that he was totally understandable for me. That at the beginning of the class, he didn’t know words like flip-flops, beach ball and mini fridge (we were planning summer holidays this time) and now he knows. If he shifts his goal from “speaking English” to smaller goals like today “being able to talk about holidays” or “telling what I did last weekend”, he’ll notice that he can reach those goals within an hour. That he's actually capable of learning English.
This all could contribute to changing his mind. That he'll think one day that he is capable of speaking English. How important this is? It's all explained in this Ted Talk
. So let’s focus on the small things and make our students feel that they’re not rolling rocks uphill for nothing!