Making mistakes: it’s OK!

All too often I come across students who are scared of speaking English. A good number of people I’ve tutored over the years have requested lessons with me because they want to focus specifically on speaking. A common complaint? ‘Every time I open my mouth, I make a mistake. I know all the grammar rules, but I still make mistakes!’

There’s no shortcut to fix this: the answer lies in practice, be that practice that focuses on accuracy (those pesky grammar mistakes!), or practice that focuses on fluency. I also think that there’s a lot to be said for increasing a learner’s confidence. It’s OK to make mistakes. In fact, it’s fun! While learning Russian, I embarrassed myself a lot, but failure is really part of the process. Once you’ve made a ridiculous mistake (and had it pointed out to you), you are significantly less likely to make that mistake again. Here are some of my most memorable Russian errors – laugh away!

  1. The time I wrote an advertisement for a honeymoon package (a class assignment) and targeted the whole piece at ‘you and your special grandad’. It turns out that when you’re learning to write cursive, it is quite easy to confuse ‘d’ with ‘v’. Devushka = girl/girlfriend. Dedushka = grandad.
  2. The moment where I had to play the word ‘diarrhoea’ to win a game of Scrabble – and I couldn’t even spell it correctly! The Russian word for diarrhoea is ponos, but the rules of word stress dictate that the first ‘o’ is pronounced more like an ‘a’. Silly stress.
  3. The lesson with some adult learners when I told them that I had wet myself ‘a little bit’. I had meant to reassure them that one of the students had been running late, but I had let her into the building. It turns out that a small mispronunciation transforms ‘I let her in’ into ‘I let a little out’.
  4. The bus journey through the Swiss Alps when I needed to ask a nauseous young Russian boy if he had any travel sickness medication with him. I learned that the Russian word for medicine isn’t narkotiki, and if you ask an eight year-old if he has any narkotiki,  he will get a bit confused.
  5. The chat with a wayward Russian teen whose may have seen another child’s arm being broken: ‘Don’t worry, you can tell me what happened. I promise that there won’t be a vystuplenie.’ Vystuplenie means appearance or performance; I should have said nakazanye, meaning ‘punishment’. And I had been reading Dostoevsky at the time, too.

Finally, an honourable mention for the best German language mistake I’ve made so far: in my first assessed oral presentation, I informed the examiners that Hitler had indeed been the Käse of the Third Reich. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘Big Cheese’…

Although most of these mistakes left me red-faced (thanks, Russian speakers), but even more determined to get it right next time. Other than sharing examples of my own embarrassment, I really don’t know how to reassure students that mistakes are not only OK – they’re helpful! Do you have any ideas?

Why speaking Russian made me a better English teacher

This week the British Council republished an old post from 2013 across a couple of their social media accounts. Graham Hall and Guy Cook’s study of own-language use in ELT (available here) is well worth reading if you can spare an hour or two (or jump to p26 for their summary of findings!).

L1 in the classroom has a bad rep. When I was doing my CELTA course, use of L1 was actively discouraged. I didn’t really think too much about this at the time; I didn’t speak the L1 in question (Ukrainian), and I imagined that one of the draws of the private language school was the promise of ‘immersion’ during the class. Although I didn’t know much about language teaching methodology at that point, I had studied languages for long enough to know that immersion = good, and translation = bad.

Fast forward to the start of my teaching career: I was in Moscow and, what’s more, I had moved to Moscow in order to improve my Russian. I was desperate for the immersive experience that had been missing during my university studies in the UK – so I understood why my students were so keen to be taught by a native speaker. More on native/non-native teachers to come from me at another juncture…

Earlier this month, Lizzie Pinard wrote a blog post for the British Council called ‘Why learning Thai made me a better English teacher’. It made me pause – and now, here’s why speaking Russian made me a better English teacher (in, er… Russia):

  • I could draw comparisons. Russian only has three tenses; English has… many more. Fortunately, Russian has aspects (imperfective and perfective), and these can be very helpful when it comes to explaining perfect and imperfect tenses.
  • I could translate. I much prefer teaching vocabulary by showing words in context, and glossing in English, but sometimes the classes moved too quickly. Why hinder a student’s flow when they need a word to continue a story they’re writing? I certainly quick-fired a few translations across the class.
  • I could understand students’ mistakes. If you know a student’s L1, you can often untangle their lexical or syntactical errors more quickly and, usefully, anticipate them when you are planning and delivering your lesson. There’s nothing like staying ahead of the game!
  • I could build a rapport. It’s definitely possible to build a rapport with someone without sharing a common language. However, I found that adult students in particular felt more at ease once they knew that I spoke their language. If beginner students were struggling, they knew that they could take a time-out and clarify a point in their own language. My experience of language learning was also useful when teaching students who were anxious or lacking in confidence: I could reassure them that I had been in their position as well, and I’d made it through.
  • I could laugh at myself (and my students could laugh at me). I’m sure that we’ve all chuckled at our students’ mistakes on one occasion or another. It’s certainly a great equalizer when they can laugh at you instead. During my language-learning journey I have proudly told a class that I had wet myself (note to self: word stress is very important in Russian), and asked a travelsick young student if he wanted drugs (again: ‘medicine’ and ‘narcotics’ are not interchangeable po-russki). And guess what? My mistakes – stupid as they might have been – showed my students that it’s OK to say the wrong thing sometimes. Because it really is! And what’s more, it’s inevitable…

I can’t imagine moving to a country without speaking at least a few words of the native language, or intending to learn. That said, it seems to be the norm and it makes me wonder how different other non-L1-speaker teachers’ experiences have been to mine. Now I’m editing and teaching ESOL in the UK, one of the most interesting aspects of my classroom experiences  has been listening to students whose L1 I don’t understand – and trying to work out as much about their native language as I can.

Короче, L1 в классе – это здорово!

The intermediate plateau

I’m sad to say that, after three years of on-off German study, I’ve arrived at the plateau. The dreaded plateau. I haven’t spent much time here since 2010 (the final year of my Russian degree), but let me tell you that it is not good to be back.

How do you know when you’ve reached the plateau? I know because information suddenly stops going in: I feel as if I’ve learned all the grammar I’ll need to know (ha!), but it’s impossible for me to absorb any more vocabulary. Try as I might, the new words won’t stick in my brain, and I find myself using the same phrases ad nauseam. Bleurgh.

Thankfully my German teacher has recognized the signs. Sign one: I have stopped doing homework. Sign two: I aced my Goethe B1 practice tests, but can’t fathom how to approach the B2 exam. Sign three: I moan about it. All the time.

So what to do? I’m determined to persevere with German because I know that the plateau doesn’t last forever: I made it through my A-levels (French plateau), and managed to pass ТРКИIII (the C1 equivalent of the Russian state exams) before I left Moscow. And I started learning German because I wanted to speak it fluently, and hopefully well enough to work in a German-speaking country one day.

As luck would have it, the internet is full of ideas on how to get off the plateau. According to this article, at language-learning community Lingholic, I haven’t actually reached the mythical plateau: I’m just progressing at a slower, less tangible pace. I might not be retaining as many new words as I was in the early stages of my German journey, but I am still acquiring new vocabulary and I’m getting better at understanding the spoken and written language. Now I ought to concentrate on ‘deliberate practice’: focus on my technique, stay goal-oriented, and request constant feedback.

I also stumbled across an old #ELTchat on the intermediate plateau that happened to include the most flattering definition of this state I’ve seen: @MarisaC’s ‘working hard but not getting anywhere’. I do like to think that I work hard.

The #ELTchat discussion raised some interesting points about authenticity: accessing more authentic texts gives learners more challenge, and reading or doing something interdisciplinary renews enthusiasm for the language by making the topic more engaging. So from now on, I’m going to concentrate on my reading: finishing my first novel in German (and not worrying about understanding every word), and keeping up with the news via Deutsche Welle, rather than the BBC.

And hopefully in a few months you’ll see me coming round the next bend…

Ten per day: testing my commitment

If you work in ELT and haven’t liked the British Council Teaching English page on Facebook yet, I have words for you: like it. Like it now. Rarely a day goes by without an intriguing post – be it a lesson plan, activity template, or professional development tip. I’m hooked!

One of the posts that caught my eye this month was a short video featuring Sandy Millin, Director of Studies at IH Bydgoszcz. In the clip, Sandy recommends studying English independently for ten minutes every day in order to learn and achieve more.

Ten minutes is a manageable goal. I’ve told many students the same thing – ‘just ten minutes! It will make so much difference!’ – but I’ve never stuck to the plan myself.

Well, the time has come to practise what I preach! My German tutor will be away for most of December and January and, without someone to set me homework and provide a focus for my learning, I know that I’ll struggle to motivate myself to study.

My lack of motivation isn’t just a problem when it comes to German. Although I attend a Russian conversation class once a week, I do nothing else to maintain my Russian language level – or build on it. And don’t get me started on my French…

In December I intend to work on all three languages – studying for ten minutes per day – and hopefully build up a routine that will take me into the New Year and beyond. I’ll start the day with ten minutes of reading in Russian over breakfast, spend ten minutes at lunchtime looking at the French news or playing on Memrise, and go to sleep after a quick burst of German vocabulary study or a few pages of Der Vorleser (current German novel of choice).

And of course, I’ll evaluate my progress here. Stay tuned!