Adventures in Teaching
English - motivation and emotion in learning.
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.
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.
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.
My favourite sentence to come from
this attendance: "Whenever I'm in David's class I feel encouraged."
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
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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