Saturday, 27 February 2010

A lesson in the psychology of learning languages (part 1)

This post is in response to a blog carnival hosted by Kalinago English. The theme of the carnival is LESSONS, but I thought rather than providing a lesson plan here, I’d tell you a lesson I learnt while observing a lesson. Actually, I’m not sure that’s allowed – the rules of the carnival say it has to be a lesson plan (bah!), so I’ll have to follow this up with part 2, a lesson plan based on the lesson I learnt during that lesson I observed, if that makes any sense.

The lesson was a bit unusual. I was at the European Patent Academy (EPA) in Munich to learn about patents – how to apply for one and how to fight for or against one in the event of a dispute. The idea was that I’d then use this knowledge while writing a new course for the British Council, English for European Patent Attorneys, sponsored by the European Patent Office (EPO). For more on my experiences with that course, see my article on needs, wants and lacks here.

Anyway, the lesson. I was watching a group of trainee patent attorneys preparing for their EPA exams. The trainees were French, but the lesson was in English. The lesson involved a letter from a client, of which the following is a fragment:
Two weeks before mention of grant in the bulletin we filed third party observations in view of annex 5. Our remarks were ignored. Should we argue that the first examiner will be biased against us?
The discussion went something like this:
Professor: Any thoughts?
Class: [Silence]
Prof: Come on … it’s not difficult. What do you know about third party observations?
Clever student 1: They’re not binding, sir. According to protocol XYZ dated blah blah blah … [OK, so I don’t remember the details, but you get the idea]
Prof: Excellent. So … was the examiner biased or not?
Class: [silence]
Prof (getting exasperated): Look … the third party observation isn’t binding … is the examiner biased or not?
Class: [silence]
Prof: OK, here’s an easy question. Why were the remarks ignored?
Clever student 2: Because everything’s frozen. It’s frozen 7 weeks before mention of a grant.
Prof: (relieved) Absolutely. So there’s the answer. Third party observations aren’t binding, so the examiner doesn’t have to act on them. Everything is frozen anyway, so it won’t make any difference. There’s nothing the examiner can do. So is he biased?
Class: [silence]

Sheepish student 3: Sorry, sir. Could explain what ‘biased’ means?
What did I learn? A few things, actually.

Firstly, and least interestingly, we must teach vocab, vocab, vocab.

Secondly, never assume. Never assume they understand, even if they are nodding their heads and pretending to understand.

Thirdly, and most importantly, a significant part of teaching and learning English has nothing to do with language. It’s about psychology. I’ll give you a couple more examples and then explain more.

I used to teach a successful Polish businesswoman, deputy head of accounts in a large factory (owned by Germans). Her English was fine in class – strong upper intermediate. But she was afraid of speaking English at work, so she always had a translator or relied on her boss in important meetings. She was terrified of making mistakes and looking stupid, but the irony was that her solution made her look much less competent (both in English and in business) than she actually was.

Her boss had no idea how good her English was, because he never heard it. As far as he knew, all the money and time that was going into her English lessons was being wasted because she still couldn’t string a sentence together. Except, of course, that she could.

So the focus of my lessons ended up being on psychology – trying to break down the barrier that was stopping her from speaking English in public.

Another situation: another Polish student in another factory complained that he was embarrassed by his English and intimidated by the wonderful English spoken by his boss, an Argentinean. Well, it’s hardly surprising his boss sounded impressive – about half of English’s sophisticated vocabulary is the same in Spanish. And the Spanish tense system and rules for articles are far more similar to Spanish than they are to Polish.

And you know what … I also taught the Argentinean boss. And he too was intimidated by his own boss’s English. His boss, a German-speaker, used wonderful phrasal verbs and really sophisticated grammar all the time. Again, no surprise there, since there are really close parallels there between English and German.

Now, I didn’t teach the boss’s boss, unfortunately, so the last part of the triangle is pure speculation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the German speaker had also been intimidated by the wonderful English intonation of some of the Poles in the factory. Again, nothing odd there – speakers of different first languages all have different strengths and weaknesses in English.

But human nature is such that we tend to focus on things that others can do and we can’t. My Polish students once told me they were impressed that the German speaking big boss seemed to use present perfect all the time. But that was actually his problem – he really did use it all the time, and was probably impressed that the Poles used past simple all the time.

One last example. Many years ago, I was part of a team of half a dozen native-speaker English teachers based in a cigarette factory. We were all around post-beginner level with our Polish, so we clubbed together to get ourselves a teacher. (There were no organised lessons in that place at that time. Courses in Polish for foreigners are still a bit of a rarity, and were much more so back in those days).

I remember sitting in our training room (a pub) with all the other teachers, listening to the teacher speaking much too fast, and barely understanding more than half the words in each sentence. It kind of made some sense at the word-level, but I had no idea what he was talking about at the sentence-level. Word soup. But all the other teachers on either side of me were nodding confidently and smiling and laughing at his jokes. I felt a bit foolish and … intimidated. So I did what everyone else was doing, in the hope no-one would notice I was bluffing.

But then the word soup stopped suddenly and I realised he had asked me a question. I was completely destroyed, and had to admit it had all been a bluff. The teacher was a bit taken aback, and asked the next teacher … who, it turned out, had also been bluffing. And so on round the whole group. We’d all been doing it. A group of professional teachers who really should have known better, all pretending to understand.

Soooo … What I’m trying to say is this: the most important lesson many (but not all) of our students will ever learn is how to break down the barrier that stops them from speaking in English in public, and stops them asking for clarification or help when they don’t understand something.

That’s what I mean about psychology. If we understand what causes that barrier, we can help our students to understand it. Four important things we can teach our students:

(1) Most people suffer from this barrier but most people hide it – all those nodding heads may just be bluffs.

(2) If you try to avoid looking stupid by avoiding speaking, you end up looking far more stupid. And failing to do your job properly. (And making your English teacher look incompetent, I might add.

(3) We’re all intimidated by what other can do that we can’t, but we must remember that other people are probably intimidated by us! It might even be the same people! We tend not to notice the things that we can do (that others can’t) – again, because most people are so good at hiding their weaknesses and insecurities.

(4) As a bilingual speaker of English, it is absolutely ridiculous to feel intimidated by monolingual native speakers. If you’ve made the effort to learn and use their language, the least they can do in return is to use non-idiomatic vocabulary and to pronounce things properly. If they fail to communicate successfully, that’s their failure, not yours. No need to feel ashamed.

So, yes, we need to be a counsellor, a therapist, a life coach, a shrink, to persuade our students to go for it, to take risks. And of course we also need to teach them some language strategies and useful phrases for interrupting, for clarifying, for pinpointing specific problems (and not just saying ‘I don’t undertsand’) and for managing the conversation (including getting the other person to speak more slowly or clearly).

And when I get time, I’ll turn all of that into a lesson and post it here …

Related posts:
First steps in course design 
Thoughts on blogging 
Needs, lacks and wants


  1. Great post. I get a lot of that: "OK, OK, I understand." from my adult Korean students. The bluff falls apart when I ask them to explain my question to their partner. Silence.

  2. I think this is really important to keep in mind. We often think teaching English is about simply that, English. However, it's really about teaching people. We have to deal with their fears, frustrations, motivations, etc. This post was a nice reminder.

  3. :-) yup, I'll be needing that lesson plan bringing this issue up with students and yea, teaching some vocabulary on psychology too... mm, nice one, could be an ESP lesson...ah,ha.


  4. Lovely. Can't be repeated enough.

  5. Hi Neil, Nick, Karenne and Anne

    Ach, I'm useless at this blogging business. Thanks for these kinds words and great comments. Sorry it's taken 2 weeks for me to acknowledge them - I've been (and still am) racing against impossible deadlines. Don't know if I'm coming or going. Makes a change!

    Thanks again and i promise I'll be quicker next time!


  6. talk about psychology is a fairly widespread issue, so I think it is good to keep a very general idea of what it is, because it is very useful to learn these things

  7. Hi, thanks for sharing your blog