Language teachers teach language, right? Or what really is our job?

29th April 2019

Language teachers teach language, right? Or what really is our job?

by Anna Hasper

Associate ELT-Consultant

Recently, I attended a fabulous conference with Jim Scrivener and in one of his talks he referred to a comment Michael Swan had made about language teaching: our job as language teachers is to teach language. Full stop.  


This comment stayed on my mind and made me think about my own language learning experiences. Was this what my language teachers did many moons ago or did we actually get taught in a more holistic way? Well, I certainly learned about culture, but one could argue that teaching a language automatically implies learning about a host culture. However, did I learn how to work better together with others, did I develop my critical thinking? Based on my own experiences I’d have to say no. I really can’t recall reading for evaluative purposes in my French classes!  My language teachers might well have 'taught' this but in that case their teaching was definitely not my learning! Maybe certain things were implicit, delivered through comments made and attitudes embodied in teacher personas, but then again that must have escaped my attention. Maybe due to my level of maturity, or possible lack of it, but upon reflection my language teachers were indeed teaching language. Full stop.


Interestingly, reflecting on my own teaching I think -or at least I feel- I make an effort to teach more than just the language and its accompanying culture. One could argue that's really not part of our role and wonder if it's justifiable to teach more than language in a language class. I mean, why would you teach life skills if you are hired to be a language teacher? But with the current trend of integrating values and teaching life skills we might want to reflect on our job and why it might include much more than just teaching the language.


Personally, I feel that teaching language goes beyond language teaching. Vygotsky (1978) describes learning as involving psychological and social processes. Learning is first a social process, where concepts are developed through talk with others and we language teachers seem very much aware of this, we commonly use pair and group work to enable co-construction of knowledge.  After this stage of social learning, however, learning becomes more of a psychological, individual process; new knowledge needs to become internalised. This stage highlights the importance of individual mental processes that are involved in the learning process.  As many language teachers follow a learner-centred approach, I feel we should have some understanding at least of how learning works within the individual. 


And I'm sure you agree that teaching a concept does not automatically mean that our students learn that concept. We teach with the best intentions but if the conditions for learning are non-existent then it can be an up-hill battle to make progress. Interestingly, the brain is not designed for thinking (Willingham, 2009), even though we might like thinking. In order to enable thinking -and thus learning- the conditions have to be right. It is necessary for teachers to create a classroom culture that promotes thinking and learning, so besides knowing the language we need to know about establishing an effective learning environment.


It's not only the environment that needs to provide the conditions for learning. Within the environment teachers should facilitate practices that enhance students' learning. To enable effective practices teachers need to have pedagogical knowledge (Fraser, 2012); knowledge about how to deliver content in an effective way. This of course is all dependent on your learners, so one could argue that learner knowledge is possibly even more pertinent; knowledge about learning preferences, motivation and your learners’ perceived strengths and weaknesses is key. 


As I believe the main aim of a language teacher is to enable learners to use language effectively outside the classroom, it seems key that learners leave class with a feeling that they can achieve tasks and, step-by-step, their goals in the real-world. For this to happen we need an understanding of how to make learning happen. It is all good and well to send learners off with a vocabulary list and the message of 'remember these words' but we might need to teach different strategies that help them to commit those items to memory. I’d argue that teachers need some knowledge about 'the learning machine' -our brain- (Carey, 2014) and tools that can help to accelerate learning.


For learning to take place we also need to create acceptance in our learners of non-learning or so-called mistakes, so learners come to see 'failure' as an invaluable opportunity for progress. Dweck (2006) distinguishes between a 'fixed' and a 'growth' mindset and highlights that learners with a growth mindset regard mistakes as a positive; these indicate action points for future learning. Aiming at enhancing students' performance in the classroom, it is invaluable for teachers to have an awareness of these different mindsets in order to encourage a growth mindset approach in learners and welcome mistakes in the classroom.


Now, as we all know great progress doesn't happen by itself, it comes down to putting in a decent amount of effort. Ericsson (1990) talks about 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. I don't think any researcher has quantified the amount of hours needed for language learners to become experts, but it certainly requires a lot hard work for most. Duckworth (2016, p.50) states that the key to success is grit, consistent effort over the long run. I think it's important for teachers to know about grit and to create a culture that encourages learners to hold on to their goals and not let go', to raise awareness that language learning needs them to invest their best efforts day after day in challenging practice without giving up. For this we need to know how to foster an attitude of grit.


Even though there are many other psychological factors that go on inside learners and impact individual learning, self-efficacy is the last one I’ll highlight. Self-efficacy is the belief in one's own ability and affects learners' attitude towards learning, in particular when faced with challenges. High self-efficacy strongly correlates with enhanced levels of performance (Fraser, 2012). As teachers we need to be aware that our expectations of learners' ability reflect in whatever we say and do; our words and actions directly impact students’ motivation and self-efficacy. Having high expectations of all our learners can encourage them to try and believe they can do it, which helps to develop self-belief. Just remember, you might well be the only one who believes in your learner as not everyone is lucky enough to believe in themselves or has others believing in them!


I think it’s evident that there are many factors impacting language learning and there is one sentence that sums up my beliefs about effective teaching perfectly: 'Success depends less on materials, techniques and linguistic analysis and more on what goes on inside and between people in the classroom' (Stevick, 1980, p.44).  Now, you might agree and think 'this is what I'm already doing' and feel that the above is part of language teaching. But I also understand that some teachers might feel these issues are not part of our job because after all.. we are not trained-psychologist!  However, I believe that language learning can be greatly enhanced if we teachers deliberate pay attention to these factors. Don't get me wrong, teaching and learning is a very complex process which involves many different factors we might not even know about yet but I do feel that language learning could be greatly enriched if we take more notice of the impact the above factors can have on performance. It doesn't mean you need to study psychology, it could simply be incorporated through little tweaks in your language or through being more explicit about your belief in their abilities.


I believe that the secret of effective learning lies in effective teaching. And yes, teaching language is our job and language teaching is of utmost importance in the language classroom but that shouldn't stop us from enabling learners as much as possible through enriching other developmental factors during the learning process. For this, we need to gain a greater awareness of what we are doing, saying -or not doing and saying- in the classroom. Remember, it is where their learning takes them that counts and through paying attention to some of the above you could maybe enable your learners to achieve even more than they ever thought was possible!

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