A Matter of Confidence: The quest continues…

Light and growth

I said in the first of these posts that learning and confidence are like chicken and egg, though perhaps they’re more like light and growth, the one not happening without the other, though whether confidence or learning is the sunlight is impossible to say. In order to boost confidence we have to boost learning and vice versa. Factors such as environment, integration within the group, rapport on the part of the teacher, self-confidence and self-image all contribute to confidence, of course – and I optimistically hope to be able to blog on them at some point in the future – but for now, and for this series of posts, the aides-memoires I’m looking at, if you’ll pardon the slight distortion of the term, are personalising, emotional response, repetition and ‘Complete learning’. For my rationale, take a look at the introductory post to the series.

Emotional response: or “I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you”.

Life is not all about loving or hating annoying Brazilian ditties (see earlier post), catchy earworms which get stuck on our mind’s turntable, repeating themselves over and over as we have subconsciously absorbed every tooth-sensitising note. And although psychologists say that emotional response heightens learning, we don’t need to have read their work to know that that’s true. We all have our own personal examples of learning ‘via’ emotion, language or otherwise.

Here are some of my moments, but as you read, you may like to reach into your own memory-bag and rummage around for some of your own, based on the same emotions mentioned and marked in bold.

Of course, in true ELT teacher-awareness workshop fashion, you could then track down a partner and compare your experiences, but see a couple of posts ago for the risks of ‘personalisation’

Identifying naffness… Image by Diarmuid Fogarty at #ELTpics

1 When I was young(er), there was a song in the charts that I loathed. It was called D.I.S.C.O. As a ‘rather cool kid’ (yeah, right) I thought this song was utter guff and somehow vaguely insulting, as if the ‘she’ in question was a sports team, her redeeming features being spelt out à la Gimme a D “D”, Gimme an I “I”…., or as in the Mickey Mouse Club song. (One of Madonna’s recent hits has just popped into my mind… they never grow tired of the cheerleader thing, do they?) I hated the singers’ clothes, the girl’s ‘flying saucer’ hairdo, seeing them on Top of the Pops was just too embarrassing… this was 1979! Post Punk, the era of XTC, the Damned, Blondie, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John… Anyway. I can still remember each adjective, every syllable of the excruciating chorus and it haunts me whenever I try to remember who sang ‘Goin’ back to my roots‘.. (the groups have names which my memory has unwisely decided to store in the same place).

2 When I was a first year student at university, there was a song I used to listen to before going out ‘on the toon’ (Newcastle). I didn’t love or hate it, but it made me feel happy, put me in the mood, got me ready for dancin‘. It was All night long by Lionel Ritchie, and I still remember every word.

3 There’s a song that reminds me of my dearest friend (for whatever reason..), and so gives me a warm ‘mmm’ feeling. I can remember every nuance of every note, as well as the words, because I associate the song with him. It’s a song by Norah Jones.

Poignant                                                              Image by @sandymillin at #ELTpics

4 Around the time my mother passed away, there was an ‘annoying’ little song that I had heard a million times without paying much attention. But then suddenly, every word, every syllable stuck almost overnight, as I associated it with my – and my family’s – loss. I still well up if it comes on the radio, and sing it in my mind occasionally, when I’m remembering… “You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful it’s true…. and I don’t know what to do, ’cause I’ll never be with you”. Repetition alone was not enough, it was just another of those 20 or so songs played all day long on commercial radio, but then emotion – sadness and loss – came along. As did new meaning.

From music – an easy example of us learning words – to language-learning.

5 My favourite words in Catalan are mandonguilles and saltimbanqui. I love the way they sound and feel in my mouth. They were instantly memorable to me, and I still love them. They mean meatballs and acrobat…..

6 I used to embarrass myself by confusing cojín, cajón, and cojón in Spanish (cushion, drawer and – erm – testicle respectively). I once told my (ex)mother-in-law that she’d find the kitchen scissors in the top bollock. And thus ended my confusion…instantly. And probably any chance of us ever becoming close.

7 Again in Catalan, I learned that the word for bed in Spanish means something different in Catalan, when, on being introduced by my boyfriend of the time to a friend of his, my jaw nearly hit the floor with surprise/shock – and then with hilarity. The conversation went something like this.

Juan: Jaume, this is my new girlfriend, Fiona.

Jaume: Hi Fiona. So, Juan, how’s ‘la cama’?

(Me, thinking in Spanish, aghast at such a direct question in front of other people… ).

Juan: Oh, not bad. Getting better.

(Me even more aghast… ‘not bad’??!!) Jaume departs. I turn to Juan:

Me: What on earth…? Why…? How could you….?

Juan (puzzled): What’s up?

Me: He just asked how our sex life is going!

Juan: Ey?

Me: ¿Qué tal la cama?

Juan: Ahhhhhhhhhh. Cama means leg in Catalan. When I broke my leg, he was in the next bed to me in hospital. Qué tal la cama? It means How’s your leg

Me: Ah……

So cama means legin Catalan. I’ll never forget it. Believe me.

How is it going? ……                   Images by @hartle and @Senicko at #ELTpics

Dislike, happiness, warmth and affection, nostalgia, pain and sadness, liking and pleasure, embarrassment, hilarity…. All emotional responses that help us learn. Sometimes quite fast. The way songs enter our memory-bag (I’ll always remember Since you’ve been gone by Rainbow more easily than Adele’s Someone like you…emotion is what it is…) is similar to the way language does, as we memorise items, chunks or whole texts. I could never learn quotes for school exams but could always learn lines for plays, as the adrenalin and emotion of acting, the fear in fact, was far ‘superior’ to that of an English literature exam. How do you learn your students’ names on the first day – surely the names of the students you ‘react to’ in some way are more easily recalled? I still remember David-would-you-please-get-off-the-table’s name, but have forgotten his cute little cousin’s (they were 3 years old, not adults..).

Given the amount of information we encounter in a lifetime, it makes utter sense that we are simply not going to remember totally random items or moments (and there’s another path through nostalgia you could take – the most memorable moments in your life – probably not the first time you bought a bag of frozen peas, but it could be the first time you ate snails or tripe … disgust or pleasure), but we make space for those things that have some emotional, and of course intensely personal value attached – emotional value, not just practical value. I have little need for Catalan acrobats and their legs and meatballs in my day-to-day, but the words are still there.

I’m having lunch with an acrobat….                                                 Image by @seburnt for #ELTpics

SO. If you’ve got this far, what does this emotional response awareness mean for your classroom? Make your students hate English? No, perhaps not. But there are implications. Always there are implications.

‘Make your classes fun’ is the obvious answer, but entertainment alone is not enough to get students engaging with language – a class can be fun ‘despite’ the language work, as well as because of it, which is something to bear in mind. The students might then remember the framework the language was met in, but not the language itself. And it’s the language they need to engage with.

Dislike, happiness, warmth and affection, nostalgia, pain and sadness, liking and pleasure, embarrassment, hilarity- these were the words I used above, and can be used as the basis of topics to deal with with students. Teen students, remember. Ask them what words they don’t like in their own language (think about it in yours – there are bound to be some: moist, thigh, flesh, regurgitate, muffler, sprats, bollard…Leo Selivan’s toes curl at the word washroom), get them to think about and discuss them in small groups, then allow them to find the translation in English and discuss if the words are equally as horrendous, worse, better, squishier, cuddlier… Ask them what it is about the sounds they don’t like in their language and discuss words with similar sounds in English. They can then write a simple poem using, say, six words they really like and six they hate the sound of. I have used Spike Milligan’s version of Twinkle twinkle little star with students to discuss how we react to certain sounds, the semiotics of poetry… Teens are NOT too young for that. If you show an interest, so will they. They may start slowly, but they’ll warm up. The language that comes out will be very ’emergent’, to overuse a word, but it will be real to them, words they can associate with something and then use – in their poem or rap. Or life.

Visualisation is also a great way of reaching emotions via sensory stimuli. I’ve already blogged about the power of the voice and visualisation, but every time I do this in class, I am… oh, I can’t think of a ‘cool’ word, but ‘enchanted’ comes close to the feeling – enchanted by what my students come out with. They relax, they feel, and the language ‘happens’. It happens in L1 first, usually, but when they’ve found the translation and spoken about what they saw and felt, then written about it, the language is gelling, and the whole visualisation exercise is intensely memorable.

In all classes, we sometimes keep our mouths clamped shut (clamped – there’s a word I dislike) and try to avoid choking on our laughter when some errors slip out, but it could actually be worth compiling a list of them and, at some future date, perhaps as an end of term thing, producing the list and working on ‘why these things were funny’. You know the sort of error – ‘He came all over me’ rather than ‘He came over to me’, or ‘he got off with his car’ rather than ‘he went off in his car’. There’s no need to embarrass the student at the time, but you can have a laugh later on.

Your place or mine?                                                                           Image by @cgoodey at #ELTpics

My students at the moment are actually in their early 20s and I’ve noticed that ‘Questions for chatting someone up at a party’ are far more successfully learned than ‘Safe questions for a first class’, so I get students to write down questions they’d like to ask someone they’ve just met (in any context), we work on how to say them, we work on sentence stress, and off they go, role-playing: “Do you fancy a last drink back at my place?” is as valid an intro to the Present Simple as Do you like swimming? or whatever. It sticks better too, as they have to make more of an effort to say it, and overcoming frustration is a useful emotional challenge.

The role-play is memorable too….

The bottom line, of course, is this: indifference is the greatest enemy of learning. So weep, wail, blush, laugh, groan, struggle, gasp or smile, but prod your students’ emotional responses one way or another. And hopefully they’ll return the favour by learning.



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20 responses to “A Matter of Confidence: The quest continues…

  1. I love the feeling (and many of the situations) in this post, Fiona. It’s intentionally everywhere, but it’s seemlessly intertwined with the message: learn through feeling, so to speak. It took going through it and recalling some of my own emotional language learning experiences to see this for what it really is–truth.

    Once upon a time, when I was living in Korea, I noticed that grocery clerks rarely double-bagged heavy items, resulting in them breaking halfway through the walk home. Awkward carrying of cartons would ensue. I took it upon myself to learn how to say ‘another bag please’ next time. At this next time, confidently I asked the phrase I had been practising. But confidence quickly waned as the teenage girl clerk’s jaw dropped and no bag was given. What had I done wrongly? I asked Ian later and I was faced with another shocked face. Evidently the word for ‘bag’ and certain lady parts resembled each other closely in pronunciation (why a language would do such a thing is beyond me…), so I had asked this sweet, innocent, teenage Korean girl if she would give me her lady bits. I can understand why she no longer looked me in the eye. And I never mispronounced these two words again.

    What I do notice though is that all our examples so far focus on individual vocabulary acquisition. I wonder then, for much larger chunks, like those those used for academic clarity and style, does the fear associated with academic writing not instil my students to remember them? 😉

    • I keep waiting for your insightful response, Fiona. Alas, I’m continuously disappointed by the emptiness I feel.

    • First and foremost, I’m totally honoured by your compliment, Tyson – the one about ‘truth’. But it is truth, isn’t it? I think we get a bit blinded by science sometimes, by jargon and SLA and stuff, and forget that most of us have learned – or failed to learn – a language at some point, and that our own experiences are as valid as anyone else’s. Our memories are as useful as learnéd tomes, if we look at them right. An affective filter, for example, means a lot more to us if we look back at our own experiences and work out why we didn’t learn stuff, as well as why we did.
      But for the purpose of this post, ‘why we did’ was more relevant, and your girlie bits (well, not YOURS) are a great example. Something similar happens with ‘chicken’ and ‘a chap’s whatnot’ in Spanish – so women (in particular) who’ve ordered a chicken sandwich in a bar and been presented with a cheeky baguette at any point tend to learn the difference pretty quick too.
      So. Yes. Feeling. Emotional response. Absolutely key.

  2. Pingback: A Matter of Confidence: The quest continues… | TeachingEnglish | Scoop.it

  3. I can only ditto Seburnt above. Indifference is the enemy (within?).

    Oh, and me telling my father-in-law that I liked to go running in the morning, except that I said correrse instead of correr, which Spanish speakers will recognise as something a lot more personal and sticky.

    PS I bet loads of teachers have thought about collecting student bloopers.

    • Don’t we all internally collect them and share them at conferences? 😉

      • Alan, Tyson,

        yes we do share these anecdotes all the time – I share them with my classes as examples of the dangers of getting your pronunciation or phrasal verbs or whatever a bit off the mark – but do we take the knowledge that it’s emotion/reaction that makes language stick, into the classroom? I mean, when we (they?) say ‘Open your books at page XX. Present perfect’ and just rattle through what’s there because of ‘objectives’ and ‘targets’ and ‘term plans’ and ‘it’s in the exam’, what on earth are we actually doing? Not teaching, not if it doesn’t mean anything, emotionally, to the students. Indifference is, indeed, the enemy within. And without.

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  5. Oh yes, how about the time I asked for four large male appendages instead of four large batteries in Portugal- they even got the other members of staff in from the back to hear me say it again!

    • 🙂 I had a flatmate once who could speak Portuguese but not Spanish or Catalan. She lived with me in Catalunya for a year. Every day she went to the local tobacconist to buy sheets of paper to write to her boyfriend on, but instead of saying ‘Sheets of paper, please’ in Spanish or Catalan, she said it in Portuguese…. And every day the tobacconist, avoiding eye contact, remained unsmiling and silent as he handed her her sheets.
      It was only when she asked why he was so unfriendly that she learned she’d been asking him rather bluntly if he had a sex life, day in day out, and he hadn’t known whether to say yes or no (and had had a hard time keeping a straight face), that she learned that sheets of paper are ‘hojas’ or ‘fulles’, not ‘folhas’…..
      We could compile these, couldn’t we, and write a follow-up to Learner’s English. 😉

  6. As for me, I’ll never again mistake “baisser” (/bese/) for “baiser” (/beze/) in French. In attempting to request the former (i.e. that somebody lower the volume of the TV), I inadvertantly suggested the latter (i.e. that he do something really rather vulgar to it). One measly letter and phoneme different. Sigh.

    • Ah yes, I remember that one from A’level French. And jouir with and without ‘de’. One of my French teachers actually used to pick all these mistakes out of our essays and tell us what we’d all said, rather than just tell us what we should’ve said. She told the whole class, too. We were in Sixth Form, so probably past the ‘utter shame’ age, and were old enough to laugh things off, but it did ‘shock’ us into doing two things: a) it taught us to be very careful about using dictionaries correctly, to check for examples, prepositions, spelling etc etc, AND I still remember most of the ‘mistakes’, not only my own, but my friends’. So it MUST be effective at least for some people, as I very much doubt I’m unique. At least in that sense 🙂
      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Laura – I’m enjoying reading the stories.

  7. Every post of yours keeps my mind buzzing for days on end. I kept the notification of your post till today when I had time to read it with the proper attention it deserved.

    • I don’t think I know a blushing emoticon, but if I did….
      Thank you for that, Naomi. You’ve set the bar high with that comment. I hope I can live up to it!! Next couple of posts coming very soon, that’s for sure, so I hope you like them too 🙂
      Un beso

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  11. saracarolinehancock

    Loved the blog entry and the comments. Depending on the age of the student I might let them know what their embarrassing slip actually meant and then tell them one of the many I have made (including a similar one to yours (Can you tell me where the testicles are kept? I would like another one please), or a friend’s, when she asked for a ‘caña’ in a bar here in Valencia and got her vowels muddled up…

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