After he read Is my English getting better? Gabriel wrote: “I have a problem: I’m not sure of myself, I have afraid to talk to someone because I think I don’t have good pronunciation, or afraid to make mistakes about grammar rules… What can I do?” This is my answer.
We know that feelings and emotions play a powerful part, or role, in our ability to acquire new language. When we are relaxed, feel good about ourselves, see ourselves as real English-users, our ability to acquire English increases significantly. I have always believed that one of my greatest responsibilities as an ESL teacher is to help my students experience these feelings.
But what if our feelings are negative? What happens then? If we are anxious, if we don’t have confidence in ourselves, if we feel like we’ll never become a real English-user, we significantly limit, or reduce, our brain’s ability to process what we read and hear. We limit our ability to acquire English. Sometimes negative feelings also affect us when we try to use the English we have acquired.
A lesson from a tennis coach
Timothy Gallwey has written an interesting book called The Inner Game of Tennis. In this book he emphasizes the need to take advantage of natural learning processes, like the processes we used when we developed the ability to walk and speak our first language. He also emphasizes the importance of trusting the results of these processes.
According to Gallwey, who is a tennis player and coach, it’s very easy to “over teach” and take students’ attention away from the natural processes. It’s easy to fill their minds with so many instructions that they can’t relax and “play the game.” He says our students often improve the most when we say less, and when we give them the opportunity to watch, listen, and absorb. The same is true in language education: our students improve the most when we allow them to read, listen, and absorb.
This is important, Gallwey suggests, because there is a constant inner conversation going on in all of us. One part of us tries to focus “on the game.” While it tries to play tennis or speak English, the other part is always giving instructions – “do this, don’t do that” – and evaluating, or criticizing, what we’re trying to do. When the second voice is louder, and we begin to worry about how well we’re doing, we don’t play or speak as well as we could.
What can a student do?
I’d like to suggest two things that students can do to quiet the second, critical voice. First, when you are using English, focus your attention on the people you’re talking to and what you’re talking about, not on how well you’re doing. In other words, don’t listen to the critical voice.
When we focus on communication – sharing experiences and ideas with other people – the critical voice is quieter. I often saw examples of this in my adult ESL classroom. One group of students didn’t worry much about mistakes; they just wanted to talk! As a result, their English was usually better. The second group of students would have liked to talk, but they were so afraid of making mistakes – the critical voice was so loud – that they hesitated to say anything and, when they did, they often made more mistakes. In general, both groups had a similar level of English ability.
Second, accept your level of English ability, continue to feed the natural process of language development with interesting, understandable reading and listening, and believe that your English will get better. It’s okay to be a beginner and sound like one. It’s okay to be an intermediate and sound like one. In fact, if you’re an intermediate, it means that you’re not a beginner any more, and that’s great! Don’t worry about what you aren’t or what you can’t do yet. Accept where you are in the process, use the English you have, keep feeding the process, and celebrate the results as your English gets better.