Curing Linguistic Traumas – Working on the Language

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

In the previous post, I covered the most important aspect of my language coaching approach, setting the stage for the sessions in such a way as to remove all pressure and fear from the proceedings. And this alone will do wonders with anyone’s confidence and abilities in the language, because it removes all perceived barriers. As such, it helps build fluency in the language. However, this alone will not help the students actually learn more and improve their knowledge of the actual language. For this, I actually have a complete approach that can be summed up in a few important points. This, together with the concrete tips on how best to practice that I mentioned in the second post, allows the students to improve in the best possible way.

Prioritizing Mistakes

I’ve had conversations with hundreds of people over the years in language exchange meetings. And I’ve noticed that there’s one thing they’re consistently worried about, especially when still traumatized: being corrected live and, to their eyes, shamed for their mistakes. They’re afraid, given their perception of their own level, that every sentence will give rise to a dozen corrections. In fact, as we saw in the fourth post in this series, this is why traumatized people give the shortest possible replies, so as to leave much less space for mistakes, and thus leave much fewer opportunities for people to correct them.

Now as we saw in the previous post, I allow mistakes to be made. I see them as an excellent learning opportunity, and never criticize the students for making them. But that doesn’t mean I ignore them, quite the contrary. I always avoid leaving a mistake alone, because this maintains bad habits when expressing oneself that will only get harder to get rid of later on. And unless there really are many mistakes in the one sentence, I will address every one of them. However, even so, I find it useful and very productive to make an important distinction between two major types of mistakes. These types are defined according to the practical language objectives I laid out in my second post:

  1. Semantic mistakes: These are the mistakes that actually get in the way of communication, because they affect the meaning of what is being said. They usually do this in a number of ways:
    1. by introducing a grammatical ambiguity. Often found when multiple expressions are combined incorrectly, one can no longer tell the intended wording in the mismatch of expressions. Because the sentence can then be interpreted in multiple different ways, there is uncertainty in the idea being expressed.
    2. by changing or removing the meaning of the sentence. This includes anything from your standard-issue slip of the tongue to using a false friend to mispronouncing or misspelling a word to the point of making it seem like something else to just picking the wrong word or structure. This is the most common type of semantic mistake among language learners because they use words they know, or closest to those they know, and apply the structures they’re used to.
    3. by making the sentence completely nonsensical. These are most common among people with much less experience, and involve putting words together in ways that don’t make any sense to begin with.
  2. Cosmetic mistakes: These are the mistakes that don’t affect the effectiveness of the intended communication. They usually affect only the form of the sentence, and not its content. These include using the wrong preposition or article – as long as the incorrect one doesn’t introduce ambiguities, misspelling or mispronouncing a word in a minor way, or using a word or expression that technically is correct but isn’t what is normally accepted or commonly used in the language.
  3. There’s another type of mistake that I’ve identified, which is much more finicky and lies in between the first two. These are the context-mitigated mistakes (one might be tempted to call them “semi-semantic mistakes” if one had a mind for wordplay). This type contains semantic mistakes whose effects are immediately settled by the context of the content. For example, if in a text about apples at one point you use the word “oranges” instead, and oranges never come up anywhere else and you’re clearly still talking about apples, the context reveals that the intended word was actually “apples”.
    Personally I treat these mistakes as semantic mistakes anyway, because that is still what they are, but the context does allow me to help the student find, or if necessary directly provide, exactly the right correction.

Now once these mistakes are noted, what do I do? I find that students can easily feel overwhelmed by everything they have to learn. For that reason, as well as because of my focus on practicality, I prioritize the mistakes to work on for them. I will point out the semantic and context-mitigated mistakes, and tell them to focus on those first and foremost, precisely because they affect the quality of their communication in the language. After that, I point out the cosmetic mistakes, as details to pay attention to in future, but not immediately critically important. And I’ve found the students appreciate this hierarchy and prioritization.

Working from content

I will often work from content during a session. This is usually provided ahead of time, either by myself or by the student, so that we can both have a look at it before the session and therefore already know what it is about. The default arrangement is that, during the first sessions while a rapport is still being created, this content serves as a basis for the conversation, and does so in such a way as to not take precious time from the session itself to read or see it again.

This content can be composed of texts, videos, podcasts, news items, etc. and can touch on most any subject, depending on the student’s preferences or needs, or just depending on the day. This is an excellent way to go beyond everyday conversation and introduce new vocabulary on different topics. And it’s extremely important because in most languages, everyday conversation only revolves around the same thousand or so words, so students just don’t get the opportunity to practice more specific words. True, most of them will be words they won’t need, but better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.

Adapting the sessions to the student’s needs

They say that all men are created equal. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least as far as biology, interests, needs and abilities are concerned. This is why any language teaching has to be able to adapt to individual students’ circumstances and needs. Of course, this is harder to pull off when faced with a class of 20 or 30 students, but certain adjustments can indeed be made.

My own experience mostly comes from one-on-one sessions, which allow for a lot more flexibility on this point. As you create a rapport with the student, you get to know what works better for them. Some prefer to see things written down (in which case bring a notebook). Some prefer to do the writing themselves. Some only want to talk. Some can’t put up with reading texts but enjoy improvisation. Some are confident but scrappy, others are still so shy or frightened they can’t line up two words without setting off fire alarms around the world just by blushing. So with each, I try to find the method that works best. I’ve done reading exercises, video and text commentary, improvisation, live storytelling, and once even a “field trip” to a shopping center to help a student choose her next laptop and teach her the terminology in the process. With one student, I even used the sessions to help edit her poetry books, which gave the opportunity to discuss her intended meaning and how best to convey it.

Curing, But Also Preventing Trauma

All these points do help cure the trauma in people who have already been affected by misguided methods. But they also, when implemented before that, have the advantage of avoiding causing that trauma in the first place. As you know from my first post, I started learning Spanish in California before moving back to the very academic, very theoretical French system. And the differences between the systems are drastic: where the French system criticizes you for the smallest mistakes and convinces you that perfection is not only possible, but mandatory even at your level, the American system builds on the cultural pragmatism of the US to adopt a much more positive method: regular practice far beyond standard textbook exercises, positive feedback and constructive criticism, patience and encouragement. I am convinced that had I started learning Spanish in more of a French cultural context, I probably would have found it much more difficult to learn and make significant progress, and may well have ended up traumatized myself.

The curative application of this method is more of a challenge of course, because there is so much ingrained fear and stress to undo in the first place. It requires more patience, over a longer time, to convince the student that there is no need to feel that fear in the first place, and then you pretty much have to start from scratch at the communication stage. But it is possible, and I have seen great results with both applications of this method.

So the other facet of how to properly cure people of the linguistic trauma, or in fact teach them from the beginning without even causing this trauma in the first place, is a more pragmatic focus on the language itself, including prioritizing mistakes in the student’s mind, working from various types of content to increase the student’s vocabulary and conversational reach, and adapting the sessions to the students’ needs. And when combined with the relaxed atmosphere proposed in the previous post, this leads to people being able to properly learn and use the language without feeling self-conscious or conflicted about it. In the next post, we will cover the reasons one should learn languages, which go far beyond the seemingly obvious, and in fact in surprising ways.

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