Educator Insights

Approaching Fluency: Stories from English Language Learners

I’m on the hunt for stories from language learners. What is the experience like? what grabs hold of a learner to motivate them? What are the struggles they encounter? How can we as teachers make it an experiences that enriches and empowers? So, though it is an old recording, I was glad to come across a “blog of the nation” interview from 2007, “Approaching Fluency,” with Tom Miller, the editor of a collection of stories of Latino learners of English entitled, “How I learned English.”  The interview also includes callers’ mini-stories of their language learning journeys.

Miller got the idea for the book when he moved the Southwest of the U.S. as a journalist, and many of the people he interacted with had English as a second and sometimes a third language. He was interested by the way their whole person seemed to change depending on the language they spoke, down to body language and facial expressions. In addition, Miller married into a Spanish-speaking family, and was able to see firsthand the struggles and triumphs of his wife and stepsons as they learned English.

During the interview and chat with callers, several things struck me as things that were important for language teachers to conscious of. Here’s my list, but have a listen yourself and see what piques your interest!

1. In acquiring a new language, a person can also acquire a new personality. This is a blessing and a curse, and to be truly multi-national and multi-lingual, language learners may find themselves needing to reconnect with their birth language and country, especially if they are completely immersed in their target language (such as might be the experience of an immigrant). As a teacher, I need to make sure that in my desire to help students be successful in their target language, I also make sure that there are opportunities to celebrate their native language and culture.

2. The a wide variety of things can be motivators and language teaching tools, from the more “scholarly” to the less so. One caller learned English by reading Moby Dick, but others talked about learning from music, like Frank Sinatra and Pink Floyd, or from television, like Sesame Street. My own language learning story is that Korean dramas and K-pop music first got me interested in learning Korean. I should be open to non-conventional teaching tools and motivators. They don’t have to be the end of study, but let them be the beginning, and find ways to help your students take hold of their target language through something that really grabs their attention.

3. Some motivators weren’t positive. One man threw himself into learning English because the Californian town where he lived was very anti-Mexican and anti-Spanish. The interview didn’t elaborate how that colored his relationship with English, but I wondered what the effect from that might be. Beyond just teaching a language, it’s important to give students the opportunity to have a positive “relationship” with the language they are studying, so that it becomes something that enriches them instead of becoming a negative thing.

4. Languages (in this case English) often come in different varieties. There is Canadian French, Parisian French, North African French. There is Spain Spanish, Central American Spanish, South American Spanish, North American Spanish. There are Englishes from every corner of the globe. This is richness. The dominate form of a language (in the case of English, American or British) does not therefore make it the most “correct.”  The Global nature of language means that that I can focus more on connection and communication in my classroom, and less on aspiring to some sort of absolute, Platonic ‘Form’ of the language. 

What ideas to these stories spark in you?

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Contributing Author

Abigail Long is a 2012 graduate of Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and a member of Fairview Ave Brethren in Christ Church in Waynesboro, PA. She spent 14 months teaching English in South Korea at the Connexus Language Institute and is deeply interested in the connections between language learning, teaching and peacebuilding.

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