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Observations from the beginner’s seat: What studying a third language has reminded me about teaching

I’ve very rarely taught English to absolute beginners. To be honest, after years of teaching university students and adults in graduate programs, I would probably be far out of my comfort zone facing a student standing at that very first step.


For this, I’ve always been grateful to those L1 (for most readers that = Japanese) teachers who have to prepare students with the basic building blocks, whereas teachers like myself simply shape the mold they’ve already created. I’ve long felt that the undeserved criticism they receive comes largely from teachers who’ve never been in a similar teaching situation.


‘My experiences in trying to grasp Thai from step zero have re-enlightened me’


Let me be specific here. I’m not talking about ESL scenarios, where the immediate outside environment of the learner provides a ready-made source of natural input. Nor am I talking about children under the age at which abilities atrophy, allowing them to more naturally absorb second-language form and content. Rather, I’m talking about adults: a monolingual English speaker say, wishing to pick up Chinese or someone like myself, a native English speaker, proficient in Japanese, and now starting to learn Thai.


The reason I’m trying to pick up Thai is that I’m spending a six-month sabbatical at a university in Thailand and I don’t want to come across as the dullard, linguistically chauvinistic farang (gaijin) who demands that every interaction be delivered in his/her native tongue. My experiences in trying to grasp Thai from step zero, though, have re-enlightened me as to many of the types of frustrations and problems that absolute beginners experience and thus may serve as something we might apply as teachers to any post critical-stage beginners we may face.


While many of these points might be well-known to the types of teachers who frequent this site I hope these serve to reinforce some good practices from a learner’s perspective, a perspective that many of us have long since abandoned. Here are six things I’ve gleaned as a learner taking baby steps in Thai:


  1. Meta-linguistic instruction in the learner’s 1st language is essential

 As an adult, you can’t simply ‘absorb’ a new language naturally. The entire notion that anyone but a savant could do so is patent nonsense. As we already have one linguistic system (at least) established and holding sway over our cognition, it is entirely natural – and even beneficial – that we absorb any new data by comparing and associating it with the existing system. In fact we can’t help but do so.


Initial attempts at very basic Thai conversation practice with my Thai friend were quickly and regularly punctuated by English (and occasional Japanese) forays into why X is done or what grammatical/semantic function Y has. These discussions were very helpful in terms of allowing the forms of Thai to gradually fit into (or even expand upon) my existing linguistic zeitgeist. Thai, for example, has three distinct forms of the ‘be’ verb that match neither English nor Japanese in form or function. Meta-discussions about the whens and wherefores of employing each of these were very, very helpful.     


The outdated notion that L1 discussion interferes with the absorption of an L2, and the related dogma that L1 should thus be barred from the L2 classroom, are silly – and they can even handicap a beginner. The practice of using an L1 as a meta-language in the L2 classroom must be judiciously applied, of course. No one is suggesting that talking about a language replaces actual language learning.


2.       Repetition drills, in which the content is not particularly important or interesting, are actually very helpful and pleasing

 Repetition drills are hated by teachers because they are boring for teachers. And they can seem childish or insulting to more advanced learners. I get that. But for those of us trying to master a very basic form (e.g., ‘May I do X?’ ‘Yes, you may/Sorry you can’t do /X’), doing about 10 of these in succession (in both directions) with one item changed per time, helps us to develop and sense of confidence and mastery. Once is just not enough.


3.       Listening exercises, with elicited responses, can easily become a linguistic blur and be very intimidating/frustrating

Meeting with my Thai friend over coffee twice a week, one-on-one, actually made me quite nervous. Honestly. I’d studied the new vocabulary and structures at home by myself, but then she’d sit across from me and say what sounded like, ‘Mbpaenkxnhdzinjha, kha?’ and I’d just look back at her all glassy-eyed and manage to blurt out a half-formed, ‘Huh?’


I simply couldn’t process most combinations. They made about as much acoustic sense to me as Jimi Hendrix feedback does in terms of musical notes and chords. So, being a patient and courteous person, she’d go over the individual items with me until I’d finally grasped the whole. I must have sounded like a complete goober but, then, she’d ask it again. And you know what? It felt really damn good when I understood even a minor section. It was a battle won.


I know we get frustrated as teachers if and when students fail to grasp what we think they should know in a listening exercise, but being on the receiving end taught me a little bit about the necessity of teacher patience and perseverance.


4.       Shutting up to avoid making basic mistakes and thus feeling like a linguistic doofus are far from being ‘only Japanese’ qualities

 If I felt nervous attempting to speak Thai in a casual one-on-one setting with a friend, I can only imagine how I’d feel in an established classroom setting – with grades, assignments, and peers (some of whom may be fluent in the language), under real-time pressure. 


Language teachers regularly expound upon how ‘it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes’, that ‘you learn from your errors’ etc. etc. ad infinitum. Yeah. Sure.


The propensity to use silence as a means of avoiding saying something nonsensical has often been tied to Japanese perfectionism, social shame, ‘the conformist society’, and just every other armchair anthropologist buzzword that gets trotted out when a Japanese subject is involved. Fact is, there is unlikely to be a single soul on this planet who doesn’t care about looking like a complete bozo when tripping over basic speech.


Language teachers should experience the pressure that the less proficient students feel in the classroom. It’s not pleasant. Have mercy, please.


5.       When the teacher suddenly or thoughtlessly tosses a new or alternate form/item into practice sessions it can be very disturbing

I remember the following classroom exchange well. It occurred while I was observing a children’s class several years back (the teacher was using some prepared picture cards):

Teacher: What do you have?

Pupil A: I have a koala.

Teacher: What do you have?

Pupil B: I have a duck.

Teacher: What do you have?

Pupil C: I have a dog.

Teacher: Ok, A, what’s B got?

(awkward, confused silence)

Teacher: He’s got a duck, right? (more confused silence)


I don’t think the teacher had even noticed that she’d switched grammatical aspect (to the perfect tense) and, in doing so, had also drafted in the hitherto unknown, and rather jarring, lexical item ‘got’.


 My Thai friend is not a professional teacher, nor was I expecting prepared lessons, so ‘maipenrai’ (it’s no problem) in this case —  but when she suddenly switched from known to unknown forms in our dialogues, or when she added some innocuous (to her, but not to me) Thai grammatical feature, expecting me to follow along, it was very frustrating. My inner monologue often sputtered, ‘B-B-But you haven’t taught me that yet!’ more than once. Let’s be careful out there, folks!


6.       Teachers must be very careful about what they claim to teach as ‘common, every day, standardized’ phrases

 There are certain expressions that tend not to be taught early on in textbooks or in classrooms but that we want to learn quickly because we need to use them. In such cases, the learner wants to know what real speakers of the language actually say in such situations.


In my case, I wanted to know how to say ‘Let me off here’ when riding in a Thai taxi or minivan – particularly the latter.


Now, imagine that you are an English beginner and you ask your English teacher this — and your English teacher responds by teaching you the word ‘alight’. So you duly remember this item, but when you try it out no one knows what the hell you’ve just mumbled. So you ask your teacher again and this time (s)he teaches you, ‘Here’s fine!’ Except this time you notice that absolutely no one else is using that phrase when they want to get off. So, finally, some veteran fellow countryman you just bumped into at a flea market tells you, ‘Everyone says ‘Let me off here!’’ And he’s right. And he doesn’t claim to be a language teacher at all.


Language teachers often come up with unwieldy full grammatical forms as equivalents for common phrases or they teach lexically ‘idealized’ forms (such as ‘alight’) because, well, because they are language teachers. It can be very frustrating for beginners to hear so many useless or questionable variations on what should be a simple function simply because teachers haven’t given it enough real consideration (or in fact have become oblivious to how their L1 is actually used in real-time speech). This can easily become the first step towards a pupil ultimately distrusting the teacher.


From the perspective of the beginner pupil’s seat, these issues have greater impact on learner than I had previously realized. Maybe all language teachers should be required to learn a new language every decade or so. Just to keep us on our toes.








Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

2 Responses to Observations from the beginner’s seat: What studying a third language has reminded me about teaching

  1. Hi Mike–great post. Very informative and thought provoking. Makes me think we should ALL learn a new language to make us better teachers and more sympathetic to our students.

  2. Thanks Dave/Amy.
    Most foreign teachers in Japan have gradually grown comfortable enough in Japanese, and of course are surrounded by it everyday, that they may no longer appreciate the position of the new learner anymore. But try to pick up, say, Khmer, while in Japan and that should rock a few boats.

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