What does it mean to be ‘good’ at languages? - A series of anecdotes arguing in favour of a new definition.

Recently I hosted a young French visitor who reinforced my growing conviction that the conventional profile of an effective language learner, i.e. one that is able to display a comprehensive mastery of language knowledge, is past its use-by date.

This young person could perhaps be said to have come from the wrong side of the educational tracks. She was no stranger to 0/20 and had ‘redoublé’d her‘premiere’ year and yet what characterised our exchanges in English were naturalness, mutual curiosity and a lack of inhibition about accuracy.  That’s not to say that her English was heavily flawed; it’s just that the desire to communicate overshadowed and in fact made me unaware of her errors. Her partner she described as a successful language student who had always managed good grades in English and was able to read and write much better than she could but when it came to conversation his lack of fluency, generated by a desire to produce accurate structure, impeded the spontaneity of his conversation.


A young man I used to teach, responsible for much of my reflection on what constitutes a successful linguist, fitted into the classic profile of a weak student. He had a tenuous grasp of structure and little patience to set about acquiring it and yet he was the ‘bout en train’ whenever a French visitor came to class. With a genuine and unbridled curiosity to share another world view, he would bombard the visitor with clumsily-constructed, minimalist yet comprehensible questions which made it clear that the language was only a vehicle for something much more valuable and meaningful; an intercultural connection. This student performed poorly in assessments; he never passed a writing standard and scraped through the other three with grudging ‘achieved'. In spite of this he spent a lot of his Y13 year with the French exchange student, speaking a mixture of Anglish and Franglais but having a really good time and honing his intercultural competence. Now, after the mandatory OE (overseas experience) to Europe he’s persevering with his French studies at tertiary level and is a committee member of his local Alliance Française. No doubt if he’d had more aptitude (or felt the need) for structural mastery he would have been one of those once-in-a-decade stars that teachers never forget. Yet in a way his achievements are all the more praiseworthy for having been hard won. How many of us stick at things that don’t come easily? He visited me recently when I had another French house guest and I was round-eyed at how fluent and natural his conversation had become. He still has difficulty with writing but then so do a large number of young French people. Inaccuracy is simply not an impediment to his ability to communicate effectively. What shines through is his passion.


When I think about these two young people, and plenty of others in their mold, it becomes clear to me that they all have something in common. Any self-consciousness that they might have felt about the quality of their language is completely overridden by their urge to make a natural connection with someone from another culture. They don’t even feel they’re risk-taking; they’re motivated by curiosity and their natural inclinations.


I had another illustration of this sort of spontaneity during a recent visit to a school. While conversing with a small group of seniors about a film they had been studying, I was aware that one student was ‘hogging the airwaves’. His language was far from standard but he seemed to be genuinely in the moment, not stopping to check that his agreements were perfect and subjunctives skilfully incorporated. It was bare-bones stuff but it worked. The film had clearly resonated with him in a different way than for his classmates and he was enjoying the experience of being put on the spot and having to come up with strategies for expressing his ideas. The other class members were more reticent but when I addressed questions to them individually they were able to come out with well-polished – too well-polished – replies that had the appearance of rehearsed extracts from speeches or essays. They didn’t really engage in any extended interaction with me but said their well-crafted piece before slipping back into the wings. There was a palpable lack of spontaneity in their production, generated by the desire to demonstrate a mastery of complex forms. This is not their fault. They are the products of an assessment-driven system that has always valued and rewarded linguistic virtuosity over genuine, natural communication. The teacher, who was present, was amazed at the eye-opening confidence of the most structurally-challenged student to negotiate the most meaning. This is the student who in a less enlightened past would have been discouraged from continuing beyond Year 11 because he would be unlikely to measure up to the standards. Did he lapse into English? He might have done, and would this have been a crime? But no, once I had encouraged him to ask in French for the words or expressions he needed, there was no holding him back. ‘Comment dit-on _________ en français?’ is a passport to greatly increasing target language in the classroom. It’s a first step in acknowledging a common purpose – to develop transactional L2 proficiency rather than treating it like an artefact.


Playing the devil’s advocate, I like to ask teachers I meet how they would feel about allowing students to say for example ‘J’ai allé’ until their inbuilt syllabus enables them to assimilate the correct form. The initial reaction is often one of visceral aversion. This is hardly surprising. Language teachers are made in the image of their own language teachers and are generally those who have themselves excelled at structural mastery. They would rather defer teaching certain forms until they think their students are ready to assimilate the rule. The clear message to the students then is that what you say is less important than how you say it. I would argue that students are always ready to learn how to say whatever they want to say even if it involves something structurally complex which they’re likely to forget. If it’s generated by their curiosity and is useful to them, it’s bound to reappear. Such is the motivating power of choice, I once painstakingly mastered a Grade 8 level Debussy prelude with only rusty Grade 5 skills because I loved it and really wanted to be able to play it.


If I seem to be denigrating assiduous, academic students who find structure intrinsically fascinating, this is not my intention. After all, I’m one of their number. It’s just that the pursuit of accuracy is so often an impediment to language proficiency. Inhibition can make the most knowledgeable linguists into the least effective communicators. How does one acquire language proficiency? John de Mado, the engaging keynote speaker at July’s NZALT conference, advocates allowing students a large measure of unfettered creativity, which will lead to ownership, which will in turn lead to greater personal investment in the learning. Pre-teaching language in a tidy progression is no guarantee that it will be learned thus. Students self-select, he argues. They learn most efficiently what they have chosen to learn and, with time and practice, their clumsy early efforts morph, like the Ugly Duckling, into something more closely resembling standard L2. According to de Mado, language is acquired rather than taught. This is a powerful challenge to teachers’ beliefs about who controls the learning. He illustrated his arguments with emails written to teachers by elementary language learners. They were of a sort to have teachers lunging for their red pens and yet in each case the message was effectively conveyed. In time, with plenty of exposure to standard language and development of observation skills, this survival language inevitably evolves – at the pace of the learner rather than the teacher. Accuracy is a desirable end-point but shouldn’t be a hindrance to communication. I remember in the past telling students not to translate but rather to use the language they were familiar with. How unadventurous! How limiting! Now I would give different advice. I’d say ‘Go for it. Take some risks. Have fun.’ L1 interference is a natural stage towards L2 proficiency. The result would provide a clearer picture of the students’ needs and thus inform my teaching.


To what extent are language knowledge and language proficiency interrelated?

Of course some structural knowledge is important but how much and which?  De Mado stresses the importance of vocabulary acquisition. It’s hard to communicate if you don’t have enough words at your fingertips. The principal value of structure, he claims, lies in its capacity to prevent mis-communication. This is liberating, as it implies that a lot of structure is decorative rather than essential. Take ‘J’ai allé’ again (if it doesn’t render you apopleptic!). What’s not to understand? If we encouraged students to indulge their creativity and rewarded their early efforts to formulate rules, as native speakers do, rather than clipping their wings, maybe their enthusiasm for language learning would be greater and more durable. Maybe more would get off the ground and fly. (note: language learning in NZ is not compulsory at any level)


Languages have traditionally been perceived to be difficult and academic, not really accessible to ‘less able’ students, and yet my three success stories involve just this sort of student. Should this prompt a re-think of the qualities and dispositions we value in our language learners? Could we have been barking up the wrong linguistic tree all these years by over-emphasising the importance of complexity and accuracy? Could we have excluded hosts of potential effective language learners?


Defending myself recently to a friend  who was lamenting the drop in the standard of language students, I challenged him on his exclusivity and found as I suspected that he was basing his judgement on structural mastery. The hedonist in me ventured to suggest that there are people who gauge their level of satisfaction and success by the enjoyment they derive from the language learning process rather than the final product. On reflection he conceded that although he spoke execrable Malay, he really enjoyed inflicting it on native speakers and found he could communicate quite effectively.


My final story concerns an overnight visit to a marae (Maori tribal social centre) with a large group of French and New Zealand students. I got talking to a lovely young French student who had been billeted for three weeks with a Maori family. He was telling me enthusiastically, in French, what a wonderful time he was having and how much he was learning about Maori culture, particularly from talking with the granny. The experience was clearly life-changing for him. When it was time to leave the marae, I asked him to thank the hosts, in French, on behalf of his class. This he did simply but with aplomb and sincerity. The accompanying teachers were surprised by my choice of one of their weakest students to perform this small tribute when they could have recommended a more eloquent star. It was sad to realise that this mature, empathetic and curious student, whose English must have been more than adequate to communicate with his host family, had been judged solely on the basis of his test results rather than his intercultural communicative competence.


So who do we call a ‘good’ language learner? The term ‘good’ is loaded, as it implies merit, whereas there is nothing intrinsically worthy about natural aptitude. As we have seen in these examples the most challenged language learners can prove to be the most effective communicators, thanks to a range of qualities (such as curiosity, empathy, risk-taking, creativity, relating to others...) which, partly because they are difficult to measure and partly because they have little to do with our traditional notion of intellect, have not hitherto been given serious consideration. These, however, are the very qualities which have most relevance for communicating in the 21st century world and the most potential for breaking down barriers.


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Commentaire de Michel Truffer le 19 octobre 2011 à 15:56

et en roumain;)


Este atât de adevărat

Commentaire de Michel Truffer le 19 octobre 2011 à 15:48

it's so true !!!

C'est tellement vrai !!!


Be Creative ! Make your Difference !

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