Pouring rain on desert flowers
I have told my friends that I have seen a similar reaction in students when given hearty and deserved praise and encouragement. I can see the confidence of students blossom and their determination to progress bloom. It's like pouring rain on desert flowers.
Please see a beautiful insert from a BBC David Attenborough documentary program on South African desert flowers at the end of this article.
Following my career in entertainment after which I then worked as a drama coach, I noticed over the years in the training of young actors and even during my own time at university that some lecturers and coaches are resistant to giving praise. I find to not give such praise and encouragement completely counterproductive.
Some even think that drama students need to be 'broken down and then built up again' To my mind that is utter poppycock and nonsense. I am 100% certain that those who subscribe to such archaic methods may have the ability to break down a student's confidence, but the fact that they would even wish to 'break anyone down' precludes them from having the ability to build it up again.
I have seen cases at university and colleges where a student's confidence lay in tatters after they had to endure harsh and unwarranted criticism and a lack of positive encouragement and sadly their performance confidence never seemed to fully recover.
To counter that attitude I hold this quote close to my heart by Charles Schwab.
I have yet to find a man however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.
I mention this as I think in many ways learning a language is similar to the process by which one trains to be an actor.
Neither the actor nor the language student can progress and take the chance to start using these skills that they are learning without the confidence to do so.
Learning a language is not just an intellectual process, it’s a physical and a performance activity as well. You are physically learning to use your mouth and lips and vocal chords in a different way to pronounce new sounds.
Just like when an actor is learning his lines for a role, the language student is going to make mistakes along the way until the script becomes second nature to him or her. Praise for their efforts can counter their own negativity about their efforts as we know that we often can be our own worst critics.
By the way these pics of foreign language students are from last week when they improvised a typical finale Shakespearean wedding scene when all is revealed. You can bet your bottom dollar I was effusive in my praise of their brilliant and hilarious performances.
I always tell my students that in my classes or workshops if you get it right you get 100%. However, if you make a mistake I will give you 1000%. For making mistakes is the only way to learn and develop a new skill.
For a teacher to withhold praise and encouragement in a language class on account of being concerned that they may be seen to be too gushy or students may become dependent on it or that adults learners are not it need of it, demonstrates a confusion in the teacher's mind as to their role and what is actually going on here.
For a teacher to try and remain in a neutral and leaning towards a 'hard to be impressed' pose in the classroom must also be an exhausting stilted stance to maintain in the face of the enthusiasm and keenness to improve I have seen in adult learners.
You see when one is learning a language and especially for an adult learner, one has to open oneself up and become vulnerable. They have to allow themselves to make repeated mistakes as they grapple with pronunciation of new sounds, phrases and tenses that are alien to them.
Do you know how daunting that could be? If you are concerned about offering too much praise just think about that for a moment. Do you know how vulnerable they must feel?
The adult learner must start learning a language again from scratch. It must take them back to being a small child with all the feelings of confusion and fear that can come with that.
Feelings of insecurity
Foreign language students have to overcome their own feelings of insecurity, lack of confidence, feelings of shyness and fear of making mistakes. Some students have mentioned to me that they fear making mistakes in case anyone misjudges them completely incorrectly as not being too bright on account of their not being 100% fluent in English yet.
Language at it’s core function is not a judgmental game of spotting rights and wrongs. It is a means to communicate one’s thoughts, feelings, hopes, cares, dreams, aspirations and passions.
A language teacher's role cannot just be to clinically present language forms. It has to have aspects of that of a life coach offering students the skills and resources to keep on learning away from the class and the confidence to go out there and make mistakes.
A teacher has to instill the confidence and how can one do that without complimenting and praising the efforts that we are witness to in class?
It’s also a tough ol’ world out there. Foreign language students will have to contend sometimes with prejudice, xenophobia, and English language snobs who would try and set them at a disadvantage on account of minor grammatical or pronunciation errors.
If they are not going to get praise and encouragement from the teacher at every step along the way, from where are they going to receive it?
In a blog last month I wrote, 'Some of my students have told me that they sometimes feel a bit shy when speaking English in general public, a little nervous of making mistakes and what the other person might think. This is what I would tell them and anyone learning another language.
Do you know how stylish all of you are?
Do you know how stylish it is that as you are learning, and in spite of your sometimes feeling a little vulnerable, that you continue to be so open as to be able to embrace another language.
Do you know how stylish that is? It's very stylish!
Do you know how impressive it is to watch you work so hard and with such humour as you help your classmates & share your knowledge and life experience with them.
Do you know how impressive that is? It's very impressive!
If the person you are ever talking to as you get out there and start using the knowledge and the skills that you have taken the trouble and effort to develop, if that person is ever anything but visibly impressed and shows you anything but the greatest respect, then that person is not really worthy of having the pleasure of listening to you speak the language.
Most will be very impressed! Very, very impressed!
You are amazing! Remember that.'
Just like all our students have different talents and preferences as to how they learn best, as teachers we are also all unique with different styles as well. How we give praise will also differ. For some teachers it might just be a clasp of hands or a smile to show inward delight at a student's efforts. So I am not wishing to prescribe to others how to do the job the best.
However, I would rather err on the side of giving too much praise any day. I would rather be seen to gush with compliments and encouragement on every occasion than to ever spend time worrying about whether it’s too much or not. The students with their great senses of humour will soon let you or me know when it's too much, but I think there’s too little of it out there!
I have seen the reaction to praise and encouragement and as I said at the start it's like pouring rain on desert flowers.
As always, may all your good times be present continuous and future perfect!
PS: To all the teachers out there, you too are amazing! Remember that!
Please see link to resources below and to a David Attenborough documentary insert on desert flowers.
David Attenborough on South African Desert flowers
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