In My Students' Shoes: A Language Teacher’s Perspective

In My Students’ Shoes: A Language Teacher’s Perspective

Hongying Douglasby Hong Ying Douglas, ESL Faculty

I have always loved the French culture, movies, and language, but I did not want to take on the language because I knew if I really wanted to be a proficient French language user, it was going to be HARD.  Realistically speaking, I have passed the so-called “prime age” of learning a foreign language, my muscle memory is already set and definitely not developed for learning a new language, and I am too busy, too this too that….  Honestly, the real reason is that from personal experience I know that a foreign language will remain forever foreign regardless of how long you immerse yourself in the environment.  You put all your time and energy on something that will not be truly yours.  There I said it, my truth!  Plus, acquiring a foreign language is a slow process, and if you don’t enjoy the process but only want the end result, you will miss the joy of learning and are often left feeling lost, embarrassed, and inadequate.

My native language is Mandarin Chinese, and teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) is my career choice and my means to make a living.  So far both languages have served me well as I am able to navigate both cultures with ease, and being bilingual in two languages of tremendous economic power has added my value in this globalized world.  So the pressing question is, do I need to “torture” myself to learn a third language?  Well my answer is yes for two reasons.  Personally I want to learn French to appreciate the beauty of the language; professionally I want to better connect with my students by putting myself in their shoes.  So here I am, taking French for Beginners at Washington Academy Languages (WAL).

I would like to see myself as an experienced language educator and learner.  I have been an ESL teacher for over twenty years in both China and the U.S.  I have also taught teacher- training courses, so I am very familiar with language learning and acquisition theories, from Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis to Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, from social linguistics to psychological linguistics, from personal trait theories to how human brains process input, the list goes on and on.

Because foreign language acquisition is hard, scholars have conducted countless researches in attempt to discover the “magic” method, one of which was to find out the correlations between alcohol consumption and foreign language learning, and the result was, drinking alcohol in moderation reduces inhibition, hence helps learners feel “confident” or “drunk” enough to use the new language.    My theory of learning a foreign language is that it is a simmering process where learners have to be patient with themselves and try to make the learning experience enjoyable.

Well it is all fine and dandy talking about theories, but when I sat in French for Beginners, all theories went out of the window.  I was humbled big time!  I found myself shy and nervous in class.  I tried to avoid making eye contact with my wonderful teacher so that he wouldn’t call on me, and if I had to respond in my very limited French, my face would turn RED, and I would automatically lower my voice hoping nobody would hear me including myself.  Remember, I know acquisition theories, but in reality, I just couldn’t help myself feeling embarrassed and not-quite-bright.    It took me weeks before I started to feel more relaxed and slowly enjoy the class and the beautiful language.  And guess what, my French started to improve.

Learning French has become a very valuable experience.  I am now more emphatic with my students, more patient and less judgmental.  I tend to observe more and listen to them more.  Another important take-away from this experience is how much language learning software needs to be used in class.  In my opinion, technology adds some razzle-dazzle effect to the process, but it CAN NOT replace the tradition way of learning.  Drilling, reciting, and repeating build foundation; technology makes the learning fun.

I see myself as a recreational French learner.  I want to enjoy every moment of it.  My goal is to have simple conversations when I travel to France. As a language teacher, it is so refreshing to relive the language learning experience, and it is so fun to learn this beautiful language! Learning another language and being in my students’ shoes give me the opportunity to remember what my students are going through and to better support them as they learn a second language.