Using What You Know

NOTE: Apologies to those who read this incomplete. I posted it by accident when I meant to save it as a draft, and didn’t notice until some time later. Please have another look at the end, where most of the additions can be found.


Lately in my more mid-level or advanced classes I’ve been experimenting with something I consider important, which is getting students to learn how to use the English they know to “approach” vocabulary they don’t know.

Now, for me, this seems like a really natural thing to do. When I’m talking to a Korean ajeoshi in a taxi, I very occasionally ask a question, “?것… 어… ‘traffic light’, 그 단어 한국어로 어떻게 ? 하세요?” You know, I’m not even sure if I have the question phrased correctly in Korean, but that’s part of the point: without fail, taxi drivers understand it, but they often don’t know what the hell “traffic light”, or “impeachment”, or whatever other difficult vocabulary I’m asking about means.

I remember figuring out in a French class I took in Montreal — very early on — that my teach either couldn’t speak English, or wanted us to think he couldn’t. It struck me as very strange that in a city so full of bilingual people, they would hire an older, monolingual Francophone man to teach low-to-intermediate level students. I remember wishing I had a teacher who would coddle me, translate difficult words into English. But I also remember quickly realizing there was nothing for it but to find out how to ask the questions I needed to ask, en français, and that was that. I did it badly, but I managed to ask those questions and got answers — heavily propped up with body language and sketches on the blackboard — that helped me understand. And once I could ask those questions, I had a technique for soliciting information about all kinds of things.

But here was the point: in my language class, I never got something for nothing. I couldn’t exchange English pennies for French ones, but I could spend a few French copper coins to get a single silver coin. In other words, I could use a little knowledge in French to get myself a little more knowledge. I had to come to my teacher with something in order to get more out of him. Switching to English did me no good, since he (in fact, I later discovered, playacted as if he) knew no English. The only way I got anywhere was by sticking to French and trying different avenues of inquiry, as limited as they were by my ability at the time.

This is precisely what I want in my EFL classes: I want my students to stay in English when they hit the wall, instead of switching back to Korean. Of course, in a Korean EFL classroom this is harder to achieve than it perhaps was in that classroom in Montreal. In Montreal, the students I was surrounded by hailed from places like Mozambique (Portuguese-speaker), Shanghai (Shanghainese speaker), Italy (Italian speaker), Korea (you get the picture), and so on. In that classroom, the mixture of mother tongues made it easier for us to basically forsake hope for a reversion into our mother tongues (or even into semi-communally-shared English); if we were to get anywhere, we had to get on board with the Professor and just do as much as we could in French.

The Korean classroom is different because, in almost all cases, you’re faced with the situation where the students share a very strong linguistic bond in a first language, where they feel a very strong incentive to revert back to Korean at the drop of a hat, and where students are primarily concerned with grammatical structures and their “technical” mastery, rather than in learning how to actually communicate in English — an attitude fostered by education background focused on objective, testable things like grammar and an academic environment that prioritizes grades above almost anything else in the University system, with the “objective test” as the main determining factor of grades.

So anyway, I’ve been thinking about how to get my students to stay in English when they hit that wall, the language barrier that eventually comes up and seems to make communication impossible in the language of study. It seems to me there are two things that are necessary.

1. There are very simple, clear techniques which are useful to people who are trying to speak in a second language. Some people understand them intuitively, but many do not. Consequentially, these techniques need to be taught in the early stages of the semester, or language program. Acquired early, these habits can be used time and time again to great effect.

People will say, “But I teach my classes, early on, how to ask, ‘How do you say _____ in English?’ and they still keep reverting to Korean. It doesn’t help.”

And it’s true: used alone, “How do you say ____ in English?” is not the most useful question. Recall the above example, ‘How do you say ‘traffic light’ in Korean?” The biggest, and most obvious flaw, is that this question relies on a Korean-fluent teacher. Now, I am of the opinion that EFL teachers ought to learn some Korean. It can help immensely in understanding the kind of grammar to which one’s students intuitively refer when learning English; it helps with those simple, directly-translatable terms, like say, numbers or prepositions or compass points. But I would never say that an EFL teacher needs to be a walking dictionary. EFL teachers simply can’t be expected to know “traffic light”, “impeachment”, and “secret identity” in Korean, at least not well enough to summon it up at the drop of a hat. Only a bilingual teacher can do that.

Which is not to say foreign teachers aren’t useful. In fact, many Koreans I know feel that, even disadvantages aside, foreign teachers are better than many Korean teachers — especially in the school system — because too many Korean teachers simply lecture about grammar in Korean. (I won’t get into the reasons and subtext here.) The problem, though, is that what you get is a situation where the students’ primary technique when hitting the language barrier is to revert to Korean, and effectively shut down communication with the teacher. It may be a defense mechanism — I do this sometimes myself when faced with a conversation in Korean that I simply do not want to have. But it’s also a matter of technique.

Yes, there are techniques, or perhaps meta-skills, in the speaking of a foreign language, which can be learned. I’ll illustrate two of them below:

A. Communicative tricks. When we are communicating across a language barrier, we use a lot more than words. We use pictures, hastily sketched. We use maps. We use gestures, body language, facial expressions, and intonation. The amount of information that can be conveyed in this way is astonishing, as I found earlier in the semester when I had students perform roleplays where the entire script, all of the dialogue, was spoken in the form of “bla-bla-bla”. Relationships, moods, situations, problems, and more were all crystal clear when students made use of gestures, facial expressions, and the tone of their voices.

Yet in the EFL classroom, little or no teaching usually focuses on how to use these things when communicating across a language barrier. I sometimes was complimented by students on how my use of body language and the rest of it helped bridge the language barrier, but most of them never even imagined that they themselves could harness these simple techniques to get their point across. So concerned about the right word, about having the perfect grammatical structure come out of their mouths, they get lost muttering to themselves and meanwhile, the point they need to communicate is lost in the embarrassed silence.

A pretty good textbook dealing with some of these issues — good for a teacher, but a bit too hard to expect students to read — is Speaking of Speech. I think the nonverbal communication exercises in this book could be well-adapted to a beginner EFL Class in any English program. Perhaps in a later post I’ll explain more about this, if anyone’s interested.

B. Trading copper for silver. Training students to use what they know to communicate something is perhaps the core of what I want to do. It’s properly speaking not an aspect of English, but a meta-technique in learning. However, it is, in an area like language, crucial for so many things: the gaining of competent usability; the development of confidence; the understanding that language learning is, while modular, also cumulative; the ability to communicate with and learn from someone who does not share a mother tongue with you; and more.

I’ll give an example. When a student turns to me in the middle of a sentence she’s struggling to complete, such as,

My brother is not healthy. He is very… uh, uh…

she can proceed in one of two ways.

The first is this:

Teacher, how do you say, 뚱뚱 하다?

Now, the ability of the teacher to help the student depends on whether he or she knows the word, or has a dictionary on hand. The teacher might guess, but given the preceding content in the sentence, it’s difficult to get the right word. (Body language, from point A above, would probably be the easiest recourse, but let’s ignore that for now.) The teacher has to guess from a huge number of potential intended meanings, and the only certain way to help the student if one isn’t skilled in Korean is to use a dictionary. Sometimes, of course, that’s necessary and good. But often it slows down class, and worse, it doesn’t reinforce a student who, after all, shouldn’t have to spend the rest of her English studies asking teachers, or non-teachers, “How do you say [incomprehensible foreign language word] in English?” After all, most (non-teacher) English speakers will reply, “I don’t know,” and this is hardly of any use to the student.

But a better response would be like this:

Teacher, how do you say… like big, like round, large-sized… do you know what I mean? (Student sketches a fat man, or gestures “fat” around her own body, or forms a circle with her hands, or uses a synaesthetic onomatopeia word like “blooop” to signify “fat”.)

When I teach this particular approach, what I do is select a simple word in my head, and I write several words similar to it, but not the same, in English. The important thing is for the target word to be one students can guess. For example, if one writes, “rose”, “tulip”, and “carnation” on the board, students will be able to guess that the target word is “flower”. Similarly, if one writes, in Korean, the words for clams, lobster, crab, and fish, students probably can guess the meaning is “seafood”.

[I haven’t thought much about the different types of “analogue vocabulary” or “cousin word” relationships there are, though some I’ve thought up just now include “synonymous”, “antonymous”, “categorical”, and “metaphorical”. I’m not sure this kind of thing needs necessarily to be taught, though, since it seems to me instinctive that in all language-cultures we understand words are related in these kinds of ways.]

Once students get the idea, teaching them how to do this word-analogue trick is not too hard. Getting them to use it continually is harder, though.

2. I suspect that some kind of strong incentive to do so, perhaps paired with some kind of non-offensive (ie. respectful, mood-aiding, but strong) disincentive to simply switch to Korean instead, is the key to getting students to master this skill.

To unpack that, here are the key words:

  • strong: if there isn’t a good reason for students to follow the rule, they won’t. Their own motivation works, sometimes, on a case-by-case basis, but it will work generally for a minority. An easy incentive is grades, since it’s an in-place levering system. But teachers who don’t wish to reinforce the grades-are-everything mindset of a majority of students will find this unsatisfactory. Some teachers use other methods, such as rewarding students who make the effort to use this skill; replying to any other kind of communication with “huh?”, having a poster reminding students of this skill and gesturing to it when students revert to Korean in questions. Your mileage will vary with each approach, from group to group, level to level, and even from student to student.
  • non-offensive: I am of thre opinion that nothing turns a class off faster than being told not to speak their mother tongue, especially by a foreign language teacher who is refusing to speak the local language in class. While I’m not sure the term “imperialist” is quite the correct one for this, the criticisms about why it’s wrong (found under the heading of “linguistic imperialism” are often quite sensible. Certainly there are severe problems with a classroom in which the mother tongue is a bad thing. However, it’s not useful to students to develop a habit of continually leaning on the mother tongue in such a way that it slows and impedes advancement in the target language.

    My thinking is that when a student is engaged with second/foreign language study for extended periods of time — 2 to 4 or more hours in a row — short reversions to the mother tongue, far from being undesirable, are quite natural, important to the learning process, and frankly unavoidable. However, the important thing is that one must revert back to the target language when study begins again after the short break. This “macro-reversion” pattern is natural and healthy, and not a barrier to language acquisition.

    Likewise, the use of the mother tongue in momentary explanations of grammar is, often quite useful. this is also natural: one finds grammatical parallels in the mother tongue, understands, reexamines the structure in question, and then experiments with it. Sometimes a degree of code-switching — translation and retranslation — is very useful at this stage of acquisition. As long as this stabilizes towards a temporary domain of second-language practice, then there’s no problem.

    The point at which reversions become a serious problem is when they are the student’s instinctive solution to the language barrier, an attitude that can be summarized as, Well, if I can’t communicate with you in English, I’m going to bash some Korean words against the language barrier in the hope that something will bust through, or, at least, that you’ll stop trying to make me talk in your language.

  • both incentive … and … disincentive: Neither incentive nor disincentive alone will catch all of the students. Carrot and stick together will always work better than just a carrot or just a stick. But superior to a carrot in one hand and a stick in the other is to use a harness that makes a donkey more comfortable when it moves, and less comfortable when it resists. In other words, it’s best to make it hard to do the wrong thing, and easy to do the right one.
  • skill: emphasizing that this is one skill among others, one to be mastered by students, one that will be tested, is important. If students don’t comprhend that you expect them to learn this, to integrate it into their English-learning toolkit, it’ll end up forgotten after week 2. Of course, this doesn’t show up in tests, since it’s something students have to do situationally, when they want to express something they can’t. They can, at a certain level, go ahead and contrive the situation during exams, but in most cases, it has to be something spontaneous, mostly done during class sessions. And, I suspect, it’s something you’ll have to hammer away at.

It’s important to remember that you will have to hammer away at this for you to get through., and that not everyone will acquire these skills. When I do attendance checks, I find that a good 10% of students fail, all semester long, to remember/understand/notice that everyone else is responding to the roll call in English. I still get students who respond, “네!” to roll call, and when I pause and look at them, have no idea what I’m waiting for — which is different from the people who say it out of habit, catch themselves, and correct themselves. The 10% who don’t learn to respond “Yes!” or “I’m here!” or “Hello!” or anything in English, are certainly among the ones who will probably never stop reverting to Korean, and whom I suspect do it mostly as a defense mechanism.

However, I think for a good many students, obtaining a sense that the core task in the class — the task of communication — depends on more than just using “the communicative method” as a means of teaching grammar. Again, students need to take on a ludic relationship with their target language — to come to see it as a puzzle to be experimented with and “figured out” by trial and error, by sustained engagement and experimentation, and purposively. I believe that people who, in the beginning stages, learn that they can supplement their learning and their communicative ability by relying on what little they already know, and on nonlinguistic communication, will gain more confidence, learn more quickly, and sooner gain comfort in the foreign languages that they are studying. At least, from experience, this seems to be the case.

Since I’m not a researcher, this is just one more thing it’d be interesting to study, just another theory from which I am working. However, I don’t feel a need to wait till someone does study it, or see if someone has already. Probably the only people who would disagree are those who have never studied a foreign language before, or who did so only in the most nominal of senses, with little or no headway made. As for me, I am certain of it, as certain as I am of anything.

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