Tuesday, February 8, 2011

“Fear Not, Language Learners”: A Reflection on H. D. Brown’s First Commandment

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville


In an ironic sort of way, Monika stood out in that class I was teaching a few years ago.  Timid, often nervous, and generally unmotivated, she attracted my attention.  Monika put a lot of effort into hiding herself among her classmates rather than taking advantage of the frequent participation activities.  Still, I could see her there; she was silent and struggling.

Half way through the semester things changed, however.  Monika discovered something, something key to effective language learning, something characteristic of good language learners.  How did she discover it?  Well, that’s a little tale worth telling, in a moment….

Monika’s initial behavior was not behavior typical of a good language learner.  We might say it was missing a thing or two.

What good language learner traits was Monika missing?

If we asked some students this question, we might get answers like “Diligence”, “Curiosity”, “Talent”, “Interest in the culture of the speakers of the language”, and perhaps even something like “Willingness to seek out quality study materials.”

If we asked some teachers, we might hear replies making reference to “Motivational level”, “Level of literacy in L1”, “Socio-economic background”, and “Self-perception.” “Age and gender” might come up as well.

In “What the ‘Good Language Learner’ Can Teach Us,” Joan Rubin (1975) states that a willingness to guess, a tolerance for vagueness, a drive to communicate a specific message, and an inclination to initiate contact are all key.

She also mentions something else, something that allowed Monika to come out of the shade….

One day I talked with Monika about problems she could face as a result of her reticence, and I suggested that she try to participate more, but also that she do so in small steps.  The first small step would be to intend to speak up at least once during every class session.  She started in with her new intention. A few days later the class got onto the topic of farm animals.  At one point, Monika used her new intention to raise her hand and to answer my question about what a “ram” was.  When she had the floor, she replied, “It is a kind of sheep, but it is…,” at which point her facial expression indicated that she was searching her memory bank for a specific word (or affix?).  After a couple of seconds, her expression changed back- she had it!  ” …horny.” On the analogy of “rain” (noun): “rainy” (adjective), she had created an adjective from “horn,” a noun referring to an essential characteristic of a ram, of course.  As she finished her sentence, the rest of the class sort of cringed, wondering if it was acceptable to laugh at her “dirty word.”  They didn’t cringe for long, however.  Almost immediately, their cringes turned to snickers and their snickers to giggles.

My heart sank. I was convinced that Monika would never speak in my class again.  This timid, young girl had finally managed to suppress her language anxiety and speak out, only to prompt a fit of laughter among her classmates. But Monika was unfazed; her heart was still afloat.  And after her neighbor told her what that word meant, she couldn’t help but join the crowd and chuckle away herself.  “Oh, I’m going to remember this word forever!” she called out.  After class she confided to me that what she’d always feared about speaking was making a fool of herself, but that day she realized the experience didn’t have to be so bad, and that her moment of embarrassment had actually helped her learn a new word.  For her, it had been worth it.

She had discovered that something, that precious courage.

According to Rubin, “The good language learner is often not inhibited.  He is willing to appear foolish if reasonable communication results.  He is willing to make mistakes in order to learn and to communicate” (47).

I have a hunch that Monika would put this trait right at the top of a list of good language learner characteristics, just as I suspect that H.D. Brown’s designation of “Fear not” as the first of his “Ten Commandments” for effective language learning is no accident.  Perhaps Monika would state that one a little differently: “Fear not… to appear foolish!

I’m confident that discussing the characteristics of a good language learner with students is worthwhile.  Overcoming inhibitions and taking risks are challenging to the more introverted learners, but those who discover how crucial both behaviors are to successful language learning are much more likely to raise their hands and speak up, and benefit from doing so.

Brown, H. Douglas. (2000). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. New York: Longman.

Rubin, J. 1975. What the “Good Language Learner” Can Teach Us. TESOL Quarterly, 9/1, 41-51.


Comment from Armel Diakanua
February 17, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Hello I do really need your help Teacher.

Comment from Ligia López
March 1, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Thanks for your help, it´s very important for the English Teacher around the world

Comment from Aziz Alasmari
March 7, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Learning new language is so difficult. As I have experience from learning English I know that student can make it interesting or make difficult.I was avoiding talking to people when I came to the US, but I prevail on that by encouraging my teachers to me, and right now I can go, talk, and integrate with people. Learning new language needs a time to get it by working hard and in intelligent way by what student learn not by how much. I h

Comment from Aziz Alasmari
March 7, 2011 at 6:10 pm

and right now I am living with American, and he is a good guy. He helps me so much, and I recommend any Language learner to to read in English articles so much and talk with people and see how they think and how they talk. Also, new learner has to have high confidence about him or her self, and this factor id one of the most important requirements of learning beside the curiosity, humility, and doubt about things and noticing them.

Comment from Ela Newman
March 15, 2011 at 9:00 am

Hello Aziz,

Thank you for sharing your insights into what can help language learners become more proficient in English. You are absolutely right – confidence (“bravery”) is really key, just like learner’s willingness to take risks and to experiment. Way to go, Aziz!

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