Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Battle of the Selves

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

My L1 Self

Most people who know me would tell you that I am not a shy person. In fact, I tend to be chatty and outgoing. Some might even call me loud. When I joined Weight Watchers in 2006, I didn’t hide quietly at the back of the room; I spoke out in the meetings, asking questions and sharing my personal triumphs and challenges. Even when I attended different meetings out of town (something had to get me through Christmas time in the hot-dish capital of the world – South Dakota), I usually struck up conversations with the people sitting next to me and spoke out in the meeting when I had something to add. In English, I would definitely fall into the category of sociable live wire.

My L2 Self

Fast forward to 2009. I have been living in Belgium for almost a year now. Faced with chocolate, cheese, and the best french fries on earth, I have kept up regular attendance at the local Weight Watchers meetings. They are conducted entirely in French, and I enjoy the challenge. What I find most interesting, though, is the complete personality change that I undergo when I enter the meeting hall. I become shy and quiet. I usually find a place at the back, and I don’t make eye contact with anyone.

Sometimes, the leader, Jacqueline, tries to include me by prompting me to share a meal idea or weight loss strategy. At these moments, I tend to sweat, panic, and stammer through a convoluted response. I get agitated for a number of reasons: I might not be entirely sure I understand the question, I don’t want the other members to judge me by my grammar mistakes, and I don’t want them to think that I am just one of those people who can’t be bothered to learn their language.

Speaking out in my Belgian Weight Watchers meetings is a horror equivalent to oral surgery; sometimes it’s necessary, but I’d really rather not.

The Importance of Accuracy

I have spent years telling my students to not worry about what people think and to just get their ideas out there. However, this is certainly not advice I, myself, can easily follow. One on one, I am fine. When I was younger, I managed to learn Russian fluently just by trial and error. But, when speaking publicly in another language, I feel very vulnerable. I want to make the right grammatical choices because I want to be both understood and accurate. I want people to think about my ideas and not my verb tense errors.

A Solution?

I know many of my students feel the same way, but there is no magic solution that I am aware of. (If you know of one, post a response to this blog immediately!) Many of the things we have already talked about in this blog help: drilling, error correction, scripting. Having students give speeches in class is another way of preparing them for the unsympathetic ears of the native speaking audience. I am also a huge fan of the “dull” grammar book work that eventually leads to automaticity. My French teacher does all of this, and yet, I still go beet red and start to sweat when Jacqueline turns my way.

In the end, maybe only time will transform me from an L2 introvert to an L2 extrovert. However, my experience has certainly made me more sympathetic to my students’ reticence. I won’t flippantly tell my classes to “just get out there and speak English” again!

Comments

Comment from Anonymous
July 17, 2009 at 8:33 am

I think that, as adults, one of the biggest mistakes we make when learning a second language is that we are always too self conscious about what others will think and how they will judge us because of the way we talk. I minored in French literature when I was an undergrad, but I have forgotten most of what I learned. Recently I decided to sign up for a French class. In my French classes, I speak as much as I can even if it is not pronounced well or it is not entirely grammatically correct. The only way I am going to eventually do well is by making mistakes and having my instructor correct me. Because I am a language teacher, I always tell my students that before they come into my class, they must leave their inhibition/shyness outside. I assure them that making mistakes is part of the learning process. If you don't speak (and make mistakes), you might not learn the language.

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