Learning and Changing

Learning and Changing


We live in an ever changing world. Everything which happens changes the world and every experience we have, changes us as people. If we eat an apple, we are changed by the healthy vitamins and the sugars contained in the flesh. But, if it takes three minutes to eat the apple, we will also be three minutes older after eating the apple. We are constantly changing and developing. Each time we listen to a new piece of music, we become a different person because that piece of music will no longer be ‘new’. Each time we learn a new piece of information, we are slightly changed by that information because the next time we hear that piece of the information, it will no longer be ‘new’.

Safety and exploration

As humans, we are driven by two conflicting impulses: the first is to remain in a place of safety and the second is to explore. On one hand we like to feel comfortable, on the other we like to discover new things. We resist change and seek change. For the learner of English as a foreign language, there is the impulse to remain in the familiarity of the mother tongue and, in contrast, the desire to discover new sounds and ideas in a foreign language. Conservative learners will hold tight to the comfort of the native language, risk-taking learners will be eager to experiment with the resources of a different language.

In understanding the psychology of learners of English as a foreign language, teachers should be aware of these two conflicting impulses. Over a period of eight years or more, learners have been developing their skills and vocabulary in using their mother tongue. Eight year old children have usually developed considerable fluency in their mother tongue. They understand most of the language they hear, they can communicate in speech in a variety of contexts and they have started to learn to read and write the written forms of their mother tongue.

The mother tongue is part of the child’s identity. The mother tongue is a safe place. It is the language of their family and of their friends. The children have invested an enormous amount of learning power in developing their mother tongue language skills. Although children are eager to explore the sounds and patterns of a foreign language, they are also apprehensive about using the foreign language in communication.

The experience of education changes and develops the person who is educated. The process of learning English as a foreign language is a process of becoming a different person by adding English to your communicative repertoire. You will not lose your identity as a speaker of your mother tongue but you will add an extra language to your ability communicate.

Will it be difficult to learn English?

“I can walk, hop, run, dance and climb in my mother tongue, but I can also swim in English.”

The comparison between your ability to walk, run and swim provides useful insights into the process of learning English as a foreign language. When we learn to swim, we have to learn how to function in a new environment: water. You will be unlikely to learn to swim as fast as you can walk or run. When learning to swim, you will have to learn a new and different pattern of movements from those which you use in your mother tongue. After the first few lessons, you will only be a very basic swimmer. You will not be able to swim very fast or very far. You will be able to swim in calm water but not in a fast moving river or in the sea if there are big waves or a strong current. Water will always be a dangerous environment, so you will have to be careful while you are swimming.

Walking and running are natural activities but swimming requires learning new skills to be able to function in this new environment. In the unusual environment of the water, you will initially feel uncomfortable and you will lack confidence. However, if you spend more time in the water, you will improve your swimming and gain confidence. Gradually, you will learn special swimming skills such as swimming on your back or swimming under water. You will gain confidence and you will learn to swim in more hostile environments.

Do you really want to learn how to swim or learn English?

Swimming is not an essential skill in most people’s lives. Many people live their whole lives on land and without needing to learn how to survive and move in water. Most people in the world cannot speak English but billions of people around the world use English, every day, every week, or every month either as their first or as an extra language.

Learning English, like swimming, requires training and effort from the learner. Learners need to be highly motivated, if they want to reach a high standard. If learners do not enjoy their lessons, they are unlikely to make progress. If they do not experience success during their early lessons, they will lose enthusiasm for English and will become demotivated.

After learning to float and swim for short distances some swimmers stop making progress. They have achieved as much as they want to achieve and they are not interested in learning other skills. Learners of English sometimes abandon their lessons when they have achieved basic comprehension and communication. Swimming teachers often use movies, which have been filmed underwater, to motivate their learners to try to swim underwater. They may throw money or heavy objects into swimming pools so that their learners can learn how to dive down from the surface of the water to collect objects from floor of the pool.

Swimming races can help learners to improve their speed. Team games, such as water polo, can help learners to develop their agility in the water. Supplementary skills like diving, life-saving or synchronised swimming can help trainee swimmers to extend their swimming skills.

Why do learners resist change?

As we can see, there are many parallels between learning to swim and learning a foreign language. Both involve moving from a familiar environment into a different environment. This different environment is, initially, very challenging. Learners must learn new skills in order to survive and function in this new environment. Learners will resist this learning a foreign language because the change involves:

  • moving from a safe place to an unsafe place.
  • leaving the safety and security of the mother tongue.
  • risking the loss of personal identity and perhaps family and friends by communicating in a foreign language.

Growing new limbs for communication and locomotion in a foreign language.

The first time you tried ice skates, roller skates or skis, you quickly discovered that the normal skills of locomotion were unsuitable when your feet had been adapted with this equipment. Survival and locomotion will require learning a new set of skills. At first, you will attempt to move but you will fall down. With training and practice, you will begin to make your first hesitant movements. Gradually, your movements will become more fluid until you become as confident when skating or skiing as you are when walking or running.

When we ask students to start learning a foreign language, we should imagine that we are fitting skates or skis to their feet. At first, they will make a lot of mistakes and frequently, they will fall over. As they learn more and get more practice, the number of mistakes will reduce and they will learn to communicate more fluently. They will continue to make occasional mistakes but only when attempting a slalom or trying to dance.

As children, we learn to use our arms and legs, but when learning a foreign language we must learn to control and use an extra set of limbs.

Is change better?

Young people enjoy stories about superheroes who have unusual extra powers. Superman can fly, Batman can climb the exterior of a tall building and Spiderman spins webs to capture his enemies. Other superheroes may have other super powers; they may be able to become invisible or squeeze through small spaces. By learning English, your students are becoming superheroes who can exchange information and ideas, make friends and do business with billions of people around the world.

Your students are already strong in their mother tongue, but they will become many times stronger when they learn to communicate in English.

Nick Dawson 2015


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