Zen ESL

Found on Zen Teachings of Master Lin-Chi, this quote could as easily be applied to therapy, language learning, or many other subjects:

There are Zen students who are in chains when they go to a teacher, and the teacher adds another chain. The students are delighted, unable to discern one thing from another.

The risk as an ESL teacher of adding another chain to a student is perhaps not as pronounced one might think, just as one’s effect on a student may well be less pronounced than we imagine. However, the damage from such a mistake is minimal, and limited mainly to the teacher alone; whereas the damage of underestimating one’s effect on one’s students is far greater.

Walking into the classroom with only language to give students is a precarious thing, and yet isn’t that precisely what it is most English teachers do, and perhaps all of us who are engaged in the profession do at some point?

Language learning, at some point, has to be like Lao-Tze’s Tao, or Lin-Chio’s Zen: it’s something a majority of people will not actually pursue seriously, will not make much progress at… in fact, something that most of them are not interested in from the beginning. However, unlike at with Tao and Zen, being an evangelist of a language (which is in a sense what many of us are) often involves captive audiences. We’re not sitting and English sanghas, dispensing knowledge; we’re in classrooms into which we are sent, to teach “English” to students.

What is teaching English, then? I generally consider teaching English to be a little more than just teaching people how to speak English, or speak/read/listen to/write English… or even the more general “how to use English”. I consider that part of the work, but there’s another thing I try to do, with those few acolytes who really are earnestly engaging with the stuff: I try to equip them with techniques that will aid them in effectively using the language at levels below fluent, and to equip them with language-learning tools.

It may seem that practicing, taking notes, playing the language game independently, using a dictionary constructively, and all kinds of other necessary techniques of language learning are obvious. But I meet a number of students who simply have not been equipped by their education and experience to approach language learning in this way. As one of my friends commented, “It’s as if a lot of these young guys think that just sitting in the English class is gonna have them walking out talking like a character on ‘Friends’…”

Many students undergo a rather difficult education experience focused on rote memorization and test-performance; their foreign-language classes have largely been taught with some very disturbing subtextual messages that advertise the (wrong) idea that Koreans cannot speak English, that speaking English with an accept is unacceptable, that memorization of stock phrases somehow is language learning—even though it obviously is not when, after years of doing this, one cannot communicate at all using the language.

So part of what the work entails is changing a student’s idea of what language learning actually is. It’s like changing any other facet of one’s sense of reality; it’s a precarious, difficult, and effort-intensive job, but it’s the only thing that will benefit students in the long run. When a department authorizes teachers to do this, it’s wonderful. When it forbids such attitude-adjustments, then teachers must refrain from working on whole classes and simply teach it apocryphally, or to those few students who show enough interest to ask about it outside of class. Which can be easier anyway, and arguably is more economical in terms of effort.

What’s interesting is that I suspect many foreign teachers would think of it as descriptive of Korean teachers teaching English… as it well could be in many cases. But I think it’s often just as descriptive of native English speakers who use certain (popular) approaches to teaching their language. The people who conceive of themselves as cultural ambassadors instead of as teachers; the people who toss out topics for conversation and never teach structure or grammar; the people who simply don’t know what the hell they are doing in a classroom… these people are all likely to be adding chains to their students.

But then, I must remind myself, it is also impossible to help someone else remove his or her own chains if he or she does not want to try to do so. And so, here we are, back to teaching ESL as a kind of apocryphal endeavour, at least in programs where it is a required course, ie. in programs where the vast majority of students have no initial interest in the subject.

Ah well, for the moment I shall choose to try find hope in the diversified program that my University is putting on. Maybe those who don’t want to speak better will filter out into listening or writing classes which interest them more? Maybe given the choice, students will also take a little more responsibility for their learning? I’m skeptical it’ll be anywhere near as broad a change as that… but I still would like to be optmistic.

Link for the quote above ganked from the nifty Michel Foucault info blog.

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