What’s In Your Head?

29 Oct

During my 31 years as an English teacher I often had students complain to me about how difficult the subject of English was. For many it was often their most challenging subject and the one that they had the most difficult time passing. English was also one of the only subjects that all high schools require students to pass in each of their four years of high school. So if a student fails English during their freshman year of high school then for all intents and purposes they still have 4 more English classes to pass before they can graduate…and so on, should they fail another year of English.

     It’s also interesting to note that there is only one other class that high schools require each and every student to complete during each of the four years of a high school education. Can you guess what it is? Gym! Or should I say, Physical Education.

     Anyway, I digress because whenever a student would complain about how difficult studying English was I would always ask them what language it was that they had been speaking since birth. And of course they would answer, “English”. To which I would reply, “Then this should be easy! You’ve been speaking the language all of your life. Haven’t you been paying attention?”

     In many ways studying English should be as easy as studying Physical Education is for children. Does one have to learn how to use their arms and legs in gym class? Of course not! Does one have to learn how to speak English in English class? Well, they shouldn’t, but unfortunately many do.

     However, many of the students that I had in class during my many years of teaching were in fact second language learners. English was not their first language, so they were indeed learning something new, and consequently many of those students would have difficulty with grammar and usage and vocabulary…sadly just like many of  my English “first and only” language learners.  

     But when my ESL students complained or became despondent or frustrated with their work in English class I would always point out to them that this was their second language and all things considered they were doing quite well for after all I, their teacher,  could only speak one language and I couldn’t speak or write or understand any of their “first” languages so they should be proud of their accomplishments because they could all speak and understand English…not perfectly or exactly… but well enough to consider themselves successful students who should be feeling good about themselves and in fact are even ahead of the game because they can speak two languages while most Americans can only speak one.

     And here is my point. Many Americans, when they hear someone who speaks with a foreign accent, often consider that person to be of lesser intelligence, because of the way they sound. But in reality that person with the funny accent is speaking their second language, which for many American students is often unthinkable. Many Americans don’t even want to learn English, let alone a second language!

     This American propensity for English language chauvinism could prove to be our undoing in the not so distant future of a global economy and global workforce where people of all nationalities begin competing for the same jobs…as in fact they already are. Who would you rather employ? Someone who can communicate in two or several languages or someone who can communicate in just one?

     So the next time you hear someone conversing in English and with a foreign accent don’t be so quick to think of that person with the funny voice as having less intelligence than you… but rather think to yourself…”How many languages are in my head?”

15 Responses to “What’s In Your Head?”

  1. A Voice October 29, 2013 at 7:59 am #

    (1) States Rights being ‘the thing’, not all states seem to value Phys. Ed. as strongly as our NJ. When I moved from NJ to PA I was shocked by the preponderance of obesity and when I asked people about it or mentioned the what Phys. Ed. worked in NJ I was told how it works in PA. Looking into it (http://www.aahperd.org/naspe/publications/shapeofthenation.cfm) is a frustrating to say the least.

    (2) “To which I would reply, “Then this should be easy! You’ve been speaking the language all of your life. Haven’t you been paying attention?” ”

    The answer to this is, sadly, no because ‘you know what I mean’ is the de facto response. It’s conditioned at home, in peer groups and God forbid any other class point out the importance of communicating clear because, of course, ‘this is History class, not English class’. The value and importance of clear speech isn’t rarely made clear to students and with marketing playing such a huge part of the way information and pseudo-information is obtained…well, students are just bombarded with unclear and misleading speech. Attempting to address it goes poorly and especially outside of an academic setting.

    But you don’t need to really understand the language of the land to continue to be a naive consumer.

  2. Ravi Chander October 29, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    Wow, nice insight. One of your best post.

  3. Ravi Chander October 29, 2013 at 10:38 am #

    Reblogged this on M u s i n g s and commented:
    Good Insight by an English Teacher

  4. ranu802 October 29, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    I completely agree.When I first started teaching,I was appalled to find kids in grade four couldn’t spell simple English words.Could it be our teaching system,where did we fail?There was a time when kids were encouraged to write and were told not to pay any attention to spelling.So we ended up with a whole bunch of kids who could not spell. English technically shouldn’t be difficult for native speakers,but it is.The question is who do we blame?
    By the way English is not my mother tongue.

  5. emmylgant October 29, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    Polyglots speak a different language…;-)

  6. Jennifer Barricklow October 29, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

    Ah, if only being able to move one’s arms and legs meant that you did well in gym class! I barely passed gym, despite being fit and active as a child and teen. We were evaluated according to our ability to perform gymnastics routines (floor, bars, rings, vault, etc.); to shoot a basketball; to throw, kick, and catch a football; to throw, hit, and catch a softball; to run the 50-, 100-, 500-yard, half mile and mile; to dribble, pass, and shoot a soccer ball. We were graded by how many push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups we could do, by how long we could maintain a hand-stand, and whether or not we could do a cartwheel and forward or backward somersault. The only time I did well in gym was after I broke my arm and was exempted from the physical evaluation component for one grading period.

    The hard part about English (or any language) for native speakers is learning to be conscious and intentional about something you’ve always done without thinking.

  7. davidtalks13 October 29, 2013 at 8:42 pm #

    I really liked this post. My Mum and I had a chat about this very subject recently and we both concur with your comments. I have always been in awe of multilingual individuals. I know a reasonable amount of German and French for example after studying them for a reasonable amount of time but I am far from fluent. Anyone who can come from another country and both comprehend and reply to someone in a language which isn’t native to them should be given more credit. The British are particularly bad at recognising this.

  8. cindyricksgers October 29, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

    Good thoughts on a problematic subject. In Catholic grade school, we had Spelling, Reading, Handwriting, Phonics, Speech and English. I was surprised to get to public high school and find that most students did not. Maybe we need more of a breakdown of the elements of English.

    • A Voice October 30, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

      I don’t think it’s strange to be able to legitimately say that I learned, truly learned, the most after exiting public schooling with a high school diploma. Where did I go? To a Catholic college to study Philosophy and a Jesuit university to study Theology. In doing so I learned how to think and communicate critically, something that I never saw encouraged in public schools, and I learned about Christianity generally and Roman Catholicism specifically, something that showed me the liturgy is truly bankrupt.

      When it comes down to brass tacks I learned a fair amount and it was all outside the ‘public’ sector. The problem seems to me to be the public sector itself and how it is sustained, what is allowed to influence it and what is purposely pushed aside.

  9. drshyamalavatsa October 30, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

    Good post. Many of your posts set off tangential thoughts in my head! This one made me think how youngsters in my city (Bangalore) can only speak English and their mother tongue (any of some twenty-thirty different languages), but can’t express themselves perfectly in either. People of my generation speak four-five languages – mother tongue, state language, national language (Hindi), English and bits of the languages of neighboring states – again same problem – none of them perfectly! You are an English teacher, and proficient in English – it must be nice to be able to say precisely what you want to, without searching for words, or having your brain supply an appropriate word from another language like my brain sometimes does!

  10. Ka-Sh November 1, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    Reblogged this on The NQT Year.

  11. bobev18 November 23, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

    Interesting topic. I remember I disliked studying in school, both, my first and my second language. I used to think, that if other people can understand you, grammar doesn’t matter. But now I am thankful to my parents for pushing me to make an effort. I have realized that there is more to language than direct communication. The way the language is used, may communicate much more, than the actual information contained in the message. Actually, one of the reasons for resuming my blog, was to improve my language skills.

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