One of the most difficult problems a teacher of English faces, in Chile, or in any country where English is rarely used, is how to motivate students. Yes, there are fun things to do with the language. Students can sing songs, participate in debates, Spelling Bees, talent contests, etc.
Imagine this: Enthusiastically, the students prepare for the day of the big “event”. It’s a one off, a one-time, activity, a public event (on stage), and then, no more speaking English, until the next event, next year…
Let us invoke Macbeth here, responding rather coldly, without emotion, as he learns his wife, Lady Macbeth, is dead:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Is this the best we can do, as teachers of English?
Are we giving each student their “hour upon the stage“, to tell their tale, and then to be heard from no more?
This is what the one off event does. Of course, it is better than nothing, and it is a good place to start from. But there can be no doubt that we have got to do more, to make English more than an “hour upon the stage”.
We have got to “breathe life” itself into English, or it will surely “die”.
English dies when our students finish their studies, for the day.
English dies, for the teacher who lets his/her language abilities slip because of disuse, misuse, or worse, not even bothering to use it, in some cases…
I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture, and I am fully aware that there are many outstanding teachers of English who have made English come alive for their students. You are using all of your creativity and ingenuity to make the English language come alive in your students imaginations, in their hearts, and in their minds. You are alchemists, and we need to do what you have done.
We need to find the “Holy Grail”. When we look for it, we will discover that it is inside each of us, ready to manifest itself, if we really care to look for it. Our task is to make English come alive for every boy and girl, every man and every woman who comes into contact with us. We are English teachers, and no one should love English more than us!
See, I told you it is inside of us. Let our love of English shine, to light the way, and we will answer our questions. Here is the big question:
How can teachers of English, in a foreign language context, make the English language pervasive, a part of the every day life of students, day in and day out?
That’s the million dollar question.
Whoever can answer that question, will be an alchemist, because you will turn your knowledge into gold. For right now, most teachers of English, in Chile, and in other parts of the world, are coming up with one off events. We are little better than Macbeth, on the stage of life for an hour.
Somehow, we teachers of English have got to go from the one off event, to something more durable, more engaging, more fun, and more attractive for students to do, without the thought of getting a grade, or some other benefit, other than fun, getting in the way.
They have got to do it because it is fun, or, if you are really lucky, because it is necessary. Like me, when I learned German, it was necessary, because my teachers did not speak English.
My Second Language Acquisition process was slow, both for Spanish, and for German. For German, it took me 6 months of daily intensive use, before I could go from Basic Interpersonal Communication to Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. During those 6 months, it hurt. Learning hurt because I was translating from German to English, trying desperately to keep up, and failing, every day.
6 months of pain, and I was a grown man, with 10 years of military service behind me. How many of our students are willing, or able, to persevere in the face of slow learning? For me, at that time in my life, I was learning my profession, becoming a nurse.
German was absolutely necessary, because even if my teachers had spoken English (they didn’t) my patients in the hospital were not going to speak English. They would be speaking German.
Let me finish this reflection about language learning. Learning a language, without ever having the opportunity to use the language, is very demoralizing. What’s the point of learning English when there is nobody to use it with? Who cares that I don’t speak English, when everyone in my real world, speaks Spanish?
Teachers, that’s our challenge, namely, to find a way to make English fun, so that the answer to the question, “Who cares?”, will be, “I care“. “I want to learn English, because I can use it to have fun in my life, every day…”