Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Language IS Power

This is an old advertisement for learning a new language, but its message is still very effective.  Isn't that why so many people are studying English?  From my 12 years of teaching ESL, the reason they study is not from love of foreign languages.

That's what makes the teachers' job challenging.  Many language learners seem to think that if they just sit in a language class, they can absorb everything they need to move to the next level without doing any work outside of class, including speaking the target language.  Go figure!

Ten weeks ago, I had a student announce in class that he didn't think his teachers (including me) understood how much work it is to learn a language.  The other students nodded in agreement and stared at me for an expected defensive reaction.  Instead, I smiled and said that undoubtedly EVERY ESL teacher at our school has had the experience of studying a foreign language and has first-hand knowledge of exactly how hard it is to learn a foreign language.  "Not only that," I explained, "if you haven't cried out of frustration, you're probably not working hard enough!"

I've known male students and female students (besides myself) who've had an immersion experience in a foreign language that brought them to the point of tears.  I often ask my students if they've had dreams or nightmares in their target language because that's another indicator of a foreign language penetrating the subconscious.

Recounting stories of my immersion in Lingala in the former Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo) always gets students' attention.  I went from being laughed at by villagers for my almost non-existent Lingala to wielding the language well enough to pressure a group of men to help me load brick on the camp truck without bribing them with a "tip" of cigarettes (I never gave cigarettes to our workers because they're just as unhealthy for Africans as for Americans.)   Seeing words moving people to action is imprinted on my mind.  Language is POWER.

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