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Adventures in Teaching English - motivation and emotion in learning.
originally posted March 27, 2010 

The week before this last one I reminded my students of the real reason I'm in China - to help them learn English.  It's easy to forget this sometimes, with all the interesting things I get to do here. 
     I usually begin each class by putting up a fill-in-the-blanks sentence on the board, and have each student complete the sentence during attendance.  That way I'm sure to hear the voice of every student at least once during the class.  This also lets me get to know the students a bit, and maybe even learn their names.  Below at the top of the black board is the sentence for the week of March 15:
I asked them what their biggest problem was in learning English, then corrected the word "problem" to be "challenge".  Let's treat learning a second language as a challenge, not a problem.

Fear, the biggest impediment to learning English.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

Most of the challenges turned out to be mere mechanics.  To solve them only involves doing the work - reading, practicing, listening.  We can pick up vocabulary painlessly, without constantly running to the dictionary, the same way a child picks up vocabulary, by reading and listening and getting the meaning from the context. 

I don't like English but I have to learn it.  Talk about making it difficult.  Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China

But as you can see on the board, one student really nailed it: "I don't like learning English but I have to learn it." 
     It's hard, if not impossible, to make yourself do things you don't like or want to do.  That's my biggest challenge as a language teacher - to convince my students that learning a language can be fun, interesting, exciting, rewarding.  To get my students to love learning English.  Learning English turns out to be an emotional problem, above all else.

The Emotional Life

When I was a child it was widely believed that emotions make for bad decisions.  The best decisions, everybody thought, were made logically, coldly, with no emotional confusion.  This turns out to be nonsense.  With recent discoveries in brain science and theory of the mind, our understanding of the roll emotion plays in decision making has been turned on its head. 
Without emotions, we can't make ANY decisions.  This now seems so obvious.  After all, things only matter because of emotions.  Without emotions, how can we prefer one outcome over another? We use the more evolved part of our brains to predict the future.  We use the more primitive, emotional part of our brain to decide which future we would like, and which we should avoid.  Decisions are a logic/emotion partnership.
Many of my students told me that their biggest challenge in learning English was:  "I can't clearly express my feelings."  So that lead to this week's class on the theme of feelings and emotions.

Expressing feelings at Jiangnan University, Wuxi, China
     My favourite sentence to come from this attendance: "Whenever I'm in David's class I feel encouraged."  Thanks Doris.

My students all know these words.  Well, except for archaic words like "gruntled", for which we now only use the negative - disgruntled.  And "ruth", my fiancée's name meaning "compassion", another real word not recognized by Microsoft's spell checker for which we only use the negative - ruthless.  I know they can express their feelings much better than they think they can.
     Part of the problem is that learning English has been made into work for them.  Instead of emphasizing communication, they are ground down with grammar, pronunciation, and memorization of new words.  I can tell you, if I was a young Chinese I would hate English, and probably hate the foreigners who come here to teach it.  What a drag it must be to be nationalistic and patriotic, to be proud of your culture and heritage, yet be told constantly that your language is not the dominant one in the world, and success depends on imitating foreigners.  Yet if they could just come to love learning English, enjoy speaking English, rejoice at finding a new word or interesting idiom, how much easier their studies would be.

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