Curing Linguistic Trauma – Setting the Stage

For the other posts in this series:
Introduction & Credentials
Practicalities of Learning Languages
Language Teaching Problems I – Possible Causes
Language Teaching Problems II – Symptoms & Side-effects
Curing Language Trauma I – Setting the Stage
Curing Language Trauma II – Working on the Language
Benefits of Learning Languages

So in the previous post, we saw the rather unfortunate consequences of certain kinds of pressure on educational systems, and more specifically in the area of teaching languages. In short, despite teaching the language in a great deal of detail and with a high level of exigence, it leaves students functionally incapable of even communicating which is, as laid out in my second post on this topic, the first major milestone and most important and fundamental goal when learning any language. The system brainwashes them into believing that no native speaker will ever tolerate even the tiniest mistake. It convinces them that native speakers will take such mistakes as an opportunity to berate them, judge them, criticize them and yes, humiliate them, just as their teachers once routinely did. And it gives them a radically false image of what total immersion might look and feel like.

So how to avoid or solve this trauma? Well, in my empirical experience since my college days in France, I have developed a reliable method that has proven itself to be effective. It helps motivate people to practice in better conditions without the constant fear gripping them. It develops their confidence and their fluency. And it leaves them better able to face any situation in the language at hand. But of course, I’m not just saying that. Allow me to detail a couple of very relevant examples.

One of my French students here in Spain has gained so much confidence that the tables have turned: I used to dominate the conversation and have to ask her questions to get her to speak, but now she interrupts me and tells me her own stories. Her French is still a bit halting, but it’s getting more confident and fluent every time. Not only is she now able to more efficiently communicate, she is doing so with much more gusto and enthusiasm.

And one of my English students, who lives in Iraq, has made a lot of progress as well. She’s an author like me, and we took advantage of our sessions to edit her first book, which was almost entirely written long before I started helping her with her English. There were many mistakes, some of them very basic in nature. A mere two months ago, when she asked me to edit her second book, I noticed a definite drop in the number of mistakes. But more generally, I noticed that she’s making far fewer mistakes now than she used to, even in everyday conversation. And she reports fairly regularly that she’s caught mistakes in other people’s work herself, which goes to show she’s developed an eye for it.

My colleagues in my consulting work, for whom I do a lot of proofreading, have shown a lot of improvement as well. My proofreading method involves trying to understand the intended meaning and providing suggestions and corrections based on that, but for some clients, like them, I also include some grammatical explanation of the mistakes I find and correct in order for them to learn from them. And not only do they greatly appreciate this initiative, they’ve taken it to heart and actually learned from those corrections, and now make far fewer mistakes than they used to.

It might not be born of a proper academic degree, but my method has borne fruit, and that is what I will lay out here. It can be summarized as removing the pressure, encouraging simple ways of practicing, properly prioritizing mistakes and adapting to the students’ individual situation. This is the method I have been successfully using to give or return confidence in my students’ own level, and develop their fluency. As the full explanation of my method takes up too much space, I have split this into two parts. In this post, I will detail how to set the stage for proper progress and development, and in the next post I will lay out the more linguistic aspects of the method.

Relaxed and Respectful Conditions

The first and most important thing to do in order to avoid or solve the trauma those systems inflict on people is to remove the pressure that caused this trauma in the first place. The very basis of my method is to allow the student an opportunity to practice in a calm, relaxed, respectful environment. I never raise my voice. I never adopt a sarcastic, demeaning or critical tone. I always use encouraging language. I try to place jokes as often as I can, particularly when correcting mistakes, because a) it makes the whole experience more light-hearted, and b) it instills some emotion into the proceedings to help the student remember the correction. I find, for example, that joking on the literal interpretation of the mistake is very useful and shows the student the absurdity of their sentence, without making them feel guilty or insecure. And, precisely because of the joke, they will remember the distinction for much longer.

Mistakes Forbidden Permitted

This point is absolutely crucial: Mistakes are permitted, even encouraged. One of the worst aspects of the systems I described in the previous posts is this intolerance for mistakes. The fact is, we learn best precisely by making mistakes and being corrected. When you’re not allowed to make mistakes, or when you’re constantly beaten down or criticized for them, sure, you learn, but you also learn that you’re not supposed to ever screw up. I always permit mistakes, even repetitive ones, because I know that one doesn’t memorize the correct way to say or write something right there on the spot.

In fact, when you break it all down, whatever it is we are learning, whatever our age, the process is always the same:

1 – For the first 5-10 times, you haven’t quite learned the correct form yet. You make a mistake because of previous habits, incorrect knowledge, memory lapse, or confusion. Each time this is corrected, you are reminded of the correct thing. At this stage, I point out the mistake and explain it every time.

2 – For the next 5-10 times, you’ve learned it, but old habits die hard and you don’t always pay attention. So you still make the mistake. From this point on, you don’t even need anyone to point out the mistake, because you’ll remember the correction fairly easily. At this stage, all I need to do is raise a finger and pause the conversation, and by then you’ve heard the correction often enough that it comes back quickly, and you correct yourself.

3 – For the 5-10 times after that, you’re getting used to using the correct form. You’re about to make the mistake but you remember the correct form right before you say it and correct yourself as you speak, or immediately after making the mistake, without anyone needing to point it out.

4 – After this, the correct form has finally sunk in and you no longer make the mistake at all.

We all learn everything through this repetitive process. In fact, that’s the very basis of education in most areas. Why should language be any different? The systems I detailed previously all seem to ignore this point and choose a different, less tolerant approach. One can see the theoretical objective of such an approach, but the trade-off as far as results go really isn’t worth it.

One more thing about mistakes: when I correct a mistake and the student apologizes, I always make a point to stress that it is absolutely not necessary. I insist that I am not offended or angered by the mistake. Because to be frank, what does it even matter? The only stakes at play involve the student’s ability to communicate. And after all, learning to communicate better is precisely why they’re there in the first place. Having a brutal approach may shove the facts in the students’ minds sooner, but at what cost? So I choose to help them improve their fluency faster, as well as their vocabulary and grammar.

Patience is Key

One might say that facing someone who makes the same mistakes over and over again is frustrating and annoying. And I can see why that might be. After all, you’ve busted your butt so many times explaining the correct form that it makes sense, at some level, to think, “Will they ever learn?”

However, one must keep in mind that the only reason this is frustrating at all to some is precisely because they have excessively high expectations and don’t like to have to repeat themselves. I mean, who wants to witness what looks like someone not being able to learn something after several tries? Does it say more about the student or about the teacher?

The solution to this is to revise one’s expectations of one’s students and understand that this isn’t an immediate or automatic process by any stretch of the imagination. It’s neither the student’s fault nor that of the teacher. It’s just the natural process.

When I correct a student’s mistake, I always keep my cool and show patience. If I have to correct the very same mistake fifteen times, I’ll do it. Sure, for more stubborn mistakes I might try to adapt my explanation to see if other approaches work better.

And I don’t deny that it does feel a bit awkward inside when a student has heard the same correction over and over again and yet still gets it wrong. I’m human, after all. But I make sure not to let it show, and I don’t lose my cool or my patience over it.

Practice is Keyer

Of course, as established in the second post, learning a language is and remains an eminently practical activity with practical aims. So the main point in all of this is to allow the student to – you guessed it – practice. In my first session with any student, I always explain the points laid out in that post so that they can keep them in mind during our time together. I talk to them in the language, sure, but the main objective isn’t for them to hear my sensual and seductive tones, it’s for them to draw from their knowledge, from my input and from the conversation in order to express themselves as much as possible. This encourages them to make, use and understand sentences in a real-life context where the stakes aren’t as high as they’re used to or as they fear. This may sound obvious to you, but as we’ve established in the last two posts, to much of the world, it clearly isn’t. And it definitely bears mentioning here.

So this is the biggest aspect of my approach to language coaching by far – removing the pressure, and therefore the fear, from the proceedings altogether. In the case of fully traumatized students, it takes up 90% of the effort. Yet it’s really not hard at all to do. And it bears fruit. But if that were all I do, I would condemn people to maintaining an existing level of confidence and expression. In the next post, I will address the actual language-related aspects of my approach.

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