“No tengo lapiz.” Linguistic acquisition and the ESL teacher

언필이없서요 (yonpil-ee obsoyo). A recent addition to my catalogue of chunks of Korean, of which I now know a range, none of which are related to each other enough to form sentences let alone serve any useful, communicative purpose. Meaning, “I don’t have a pencil,” this, like the Spanish phrase for the same dilemma in this post’s title, is the extent of my on-the-job language learning.

The situation is reciprocal. I learn phrases like, “I haven’t got a pencil,” “I’ve finished”, and bathroom,” in the language of the country I’m living in. The under-10s I encounter in those countries in turn learn the words, “TEEEEEacherrrrrr” (with bored / outraged / despairing inflection depending on the situation) “No homework pleeeeeeeaaazzzzz,” and, astonishingly, all the words to the latest Disney / One Direction song (depending on grade level). Neither I nor they seem to get much beyond this point.

The fact that my job involves teaching people to communicate in a language other than their own whilst trying to learn a language that is not my own means I spend a lot of my spare time thinking about the best way to do achieve these goals both as a teacher and as a student, and I realised during my language teacher training course that the way I was learning to teach was far removed from the way I had chosen to learn.

Reams of language acquisition research aside – I haven’t embarked on a Masters in Linguistics yet so I can casually fling such things out of the conversation if I so choose – three things, we can all broadly agree, are true:

  1. almost all people are capable of learning any language.
  2. pretty much everyone can at least master a variety of profanities in a range of tongues.
  3. drinking language goes a long way for a lot of people, too.

I learned English because I was born in England to English-speaking parents. I’ve met a German who was born in Germany to two parents who both spoke languages from Africa and Asia who spoke flawless German and English. I’ve met a Mexican who’d lived his whole life in Mexico with an entirely Spanish-speaking family who spoke excellent English and put it all down to a thirst for American TV and films. If the language you speak is down to total random circumstance, it stands to reason that we are all capable of learning any language we want to.

And in evidence for this we have the fact that most people can negotiate a swift, ‘haista vittu’ [f*** you – Finnish],

Another thing that’s often high on the list in a new language is numbers. These are often made easier by the fact that they at least have the same appearance in pretty much all languages, whatever we may choose to name them. So far, I’ve managed to learn numbers in both Korean and Sino-Korean forms, both of which are used for different things, sometimes within the same breath because they relate to shopping. Korean Won come in huge denominations, so I’ve had to get my head around counting on a system based on units of 10,000 rather than 1000. So far this has only lead to me accidentally withdrawing over $500 from an ATM once. This in itself is impressive to me. Partly because my account contained over $500, and partly because it is fiendishly difficult to count in a number system that includes and extra 0 in its base form. Witnesses to me at ATMs must question why the odd-looking foreigner is clearly counting out loud in order to withdraw enough pennies for the weekly shop.

Conversely, in the language classroom the whole numbers concept becomes a protracted nightmare for lower level learners, all of whom become quickly frustrated by anything over 10,000 while I inwardly breathe a sigh of, “Thank god it’s not just me,” relief.

Having finally started on the scary road towards the Delta, the next step in TEFL qualifications in my chosen career, I’ve just got stuck in to some light reading on ESL teaching methodology. I’m starting to find out why I teach language in one way, but prefer to learn language in another. I’m just hanging in there for the chapters entitled: Alcohol, the Language Learner’s Best Friend, How Swearing Makes You Fluent, and hopefully, Disney and Justin Bieber: Fluent Pre-teens in Ten Days Flat.



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