Yup, that’s a real word. The fear of foreign languages is so common that they needed a term for it.
For some, the thought of having to bust out a foreign language to a roomful of staring eyes is enough to give them nightmares or hives.
Many students, young and old, are terrified of making mistakes. Society has hardwired us to see mistakes as bad things, which leaves teachers with the challenge of unraveling this myth. It’s no small task, but there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your once self-conscious, quiet class chatting away in their new language.
While verbal participation is important for any subject class, language learning is different. If students are too afraid to speak, then their knowledge of the language remains passive. It would be like understanding how to drive a car without actually being able to drive one.
As teachers we want to alleviate our students’ anxiety and make them feel comfortable enough to speak up in class, regardless of their level. They may turn beet-red at the beginning, but by the end they’ll be thanking you.
Here are some tips to help you gently bring out any student’s inner foreign language speaker. Gentleness is key here: We’re trying to encourage a flower to blossom, not perform an exorcism.
How to Teach Any Language to Absolutely Any Student: 6 Tried and Tested Tricks
1. Hold Your Horses
When a student speaks up in class, he or she knows that an interruption or correction could come at any second. This apprehension is magnified for students who are already nervous about speaking another language. They can sense when the teacher and class are getting restless, so they’ll give up prematurely. Any longer and the hives start to make an appearance.
Make your classroom a place where moments of silence are okay. What’s an extra 30 seconds of waiting if it means that a shy student will feel comfortable trying to speak?
Classmates may feel the urge to interject and help each other along, but it’s important to let the selected student take a stab first. Encourage the class to wait patiently. If the student does make an error, we can emphasize any corrections in our response:
Student: “I like to go to the movie.”
Teacher: “Great, I like to go to the movies too. What is your favorite movie?”
This is a gentle way to incorporate a correction, while building the student’s confidence. Later on if the error persists we’ll be more direct. Once students realize that they won’t be rushed, cut off or jarringly corrected, they’ll become more at ease.
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2. Focus on Flow
Okay, so all of your students are getting more comfortable with speaking in class. That’s great. Now we want to encourage fluency of speech, not to be confused with perfect speech. How can we do this? How can we facilitate discussions among students that flow?
The easiest way is by choosing the right topic.
There’s a reason why we don’t start off on the first day with a debate on nuclear weapons or gun control. We start with lighthearted, approachable subject matter.
Let’s face it, most people like talking about themselves, i.e. their hobbies, family or hometown. It’s fun to show others a window into your world and introduce an extremely familiar topic: You! When students talk about themselves they don’t have to think about what to say. They know what to say, so all they have to focus on is how to say it in a foreign language.
Because the topic is keeping them engaged, they’re getting a better feel for the language without even realizing it. Students with xenoglossophobia already have a hard time mustering up the courage to speak in class. By giving them an approachable topic, we’re easing them into it all the more gradually.
Thinking on our toes and being creative is hard enough to do in our mother tongues. If you have a student who’s passionate about football, ask him about football every now and then. He’ll be more willing to talk about something he’s an expert on. Without knowing it, he’s getting more comfortable with the language and the attention from his classmates. Next time you can ask questions that make him branch out to subjects with which he’s less familiar.
Conversation topics can grow along with the students’ language skills, and in no time you’ll be on to those heated gun control debates.
3. Pass the Ball
Asking a student a question is like passing them the ball, let’s say a basketball.
Those who are more comfortable with speaking tend to keep the ball for longer and dribble around, giving detailed answers and elaborating on your question. When you pass the ball to students with a fear of speaking they throw it straight back, answering in as few syllables as possible.
Now your job is to get the ball back to them. To do so, you should have a follow-up question ready, one that’s open-ended rather than one that can answered with a simple yes or no response. Our goal is for all students to have the ball in their hands for a similar length of time each class, regardless of how many passes are necessary. This ensures that the nervous speakers, or students who need more prompting via conversation with the teacher, aren’t boxed out.
4. Allow for Preparation
Giving students the chance to prepare for a speaking assignment in advance will help boost their confidence. For example, tell them on Tuesday that you’ll be asking them to describe the plot of their favorite book to the class on Wednesday.
Chances are they’ll already be worried about speaking in front of the class and speaking in a foreign language. By letting them prepare the content in advance you’re removing one source of stress, at least initially. Baby steps. Eventually you’ll be able to throw impromptu questions and presentations their way.
This relates to what we touched on before: Fluency. Start slow, build fluency and soon you’ll be holding poetry slams in your classroom…well, maybe not, but we can dream.
5. Loosen Things up
Games and group work are great for quickly changing the mood of the class, especially if it starts getting lethargic or tense.
Good old group work is the go-to tool to get students participating. The idea is that it’s easier to be interactive in a small group when the teacher isn’t directly present. Though there are numerous benefits, we have to be careful when we have anxious students. The student who doesn’t feel comfortable speaking will nod in approval and deflect questions while the other two carry the discussion.
One way to make group work effective is to have roles that alternate. For example, each student will be put in the hot seat to answer questions directed at them by the other students in the group.
Another way to make students feel safe in class is through games that get them moving and laughing together. Dynamic games are almost like team building, bringing students closer and lightening the mood.
6. Encourage Mistakes
Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.
— Arianna Huffington
We’re all familiar with these types of quotes on the value of making mistakes, but they’re so much harder to apply in practice. Remember that hard-wiring we talked about earlier?
Your actions will ultimately determine the tone of your class. However, it doesn’t hurt to reinforce them with some verbal reminders. When students are trying to communicate but know they’re making a mistake, encourage them to finish the sentence. Say something gentle like, “that’s fine, keeping going…”
Language gurus like Benny Lewis swear by the belief that you should go out and make as many mistakes as you can, as quickly as possible.
Remind students that mistakes are good and so are corrections. By making mistakes they’re helping themselves and their classmates grow. Adults tend to have more trouble with this than children. They often come straight from a corporate or home environment where being wrong isn’t okay.
Lead by example. If you make a mistake, lose a handout or forget what you were saying, laugh at yourself. We’re human, these things happen.
It will take awhile before you’ll be able to undo this mistakes-are-terrible brainwashing, but reminders help. Try hanging some quotes around the room that support the environment you want to create. For example, “Mistakes are proof that you’re trying” or “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
It sounds cheesy, but it helps! If you’re lucky, students will even take this mindset with them back into their daily lives.
Those were six tried and tested tips to help take some of the fear out of the language learning process. I hope they help you coax your students into speaking up confidently.
It’s true that as teachers we can only open the door and then students must walk through it themselves, but that doesn’t mean we can’t show up with a few tricks up our sleeves.
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