Tag Archives: the brain

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?”

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