In class, we may sometimes feel stuck in front of students who are reluctant to speak. If the class is an elective oral English class, we tend to look at them as lacking motivation to communicate. But what if it is not motivation, but something else? What if the silence comes from a mistaken understanding of how languages are learned? What if they did not know that interaction itself, rather than simple memorization, is an important part of the learning? When I studied English, I used to be silent. But three key experiences made me realize that I had to change from that silent position.
I started to study my first foreign language, English, as a 12-year-old junior high school student in France. I still remember our excitement before the first English class. We were talking about how much fun it would be! But soon, even though reading and writing English were okay for me, listening and speaking, above all speaking, became so painful. And not only in English, when I started to learn Spanish the same resistance to speaking appeared in that language, too.
In high school, I used quite a smart “technique” to escape speaking in class. When the teacher asked me a question, I would simply look at her or him very politely and wait until she or he continued on to another student. Then, one day, during recess, one of my friends asked me: “Malaurie, why do you just smile when the Spanish or English teacher asks you a question? Why don’t you try saying something, even if it’s not correct?”
This was my first key experience. And, here is what went on in my mind: 1st, “My friend feels my reaction is strange!”; 2nd, “How come it’s not the right reaction?” 3rd, just “Hmm.” I mean, I didn’t really know what to think of it but I started questioning my attitude. Even though, before my friend’s comments, teachers had explained to me in a really positive way that I should try to answer, I couldn’t trust them. But, then, this same suggestion, coming from a trusted friend, made me introspect. Indeed, peer comments can have much more effect than thoughtful speeches from teachers or people with authority. His question didn’t make me change my attitude the next day, but it haunted my mind for months, or maybe for years.
My journey as a learner brought two more key experiences that shaped me as a teacher. In high school in France, one of them really struck me: “drill” practices in English class. They were so challenging and difficult for me. They were almost painful. We would do drill practices in large groups in class or in the lab, individually. And in either of those two situations, even though we had clear directions, I would just struggle. There didn’t seem to be any purpose for doing drills. I remember my brain always ran full speed to keep up, but I would finally get it at the 9th or 10th sentence, and, just at that point, the teacher would say “Good, that’s all, finished,” or “OK, now do the next one.” I was so stressed beforehand and so frustrated after! I was just starting to get it, and the practice would end. I wanted to continue, so I felt left behind. Then, when I went to university in Canada, and one of my English teachers told us that “Next week, we’ll go to the lab, to do drill practices,” I still remember my inner reaction, “Oh no! Not that nightmare again!”. But this teacher also told us that those of us who wanted to practice at home could bring a tape (it was in 1997) and record the drills. I did. We had been practicing tag questions in grammar class, and I knew all the rules and how they worked, but I was unable to use them in conversation. At that time, I still didn’t understand what the drill was trying to teach us, but I did as the teacher advised, practicing again two or three times at home. Doing so, I suddenly understood. These were for giving learners automaticity, because, since then, I have been able to use tag questions without thinking. Until that moment, I had never experienced automaticity.
The third experience that changed me was during my last homestay in Vancouver, when I was 19. It was fairly urgent for me to communicate something to my host family and I still remember what was going on in my mind. I felt my mouth was ready to say that thing, but my student brain sent out a warning and stopped me. Then a battle started between me as a student and me as a person trying to live in the world: “No, I can’t say that yet! I didn’t have the time to check if it is correct.” And my mouth thought: “But it’s an emergency, I really need to say this NOW!” Finally, my mind just decided, “OK, go with the mouth” and I still remember that feeling when I spoke for the first time “without thinking.” Getting the right reaction, I still remember my brain saying, “No way! It worked! I got it!” It was so fulfilling, I felt relieved. So, that was it! I started to speak English without letting my student brain stop me. “Without thinking” here means: without translating from French into English and checking all the grammar rules, etc. So, my motto in the classes I taught became “trust your mouth.” And, as a teacher, I wondered for many years about the keys that unlocked me so that I could speak in a foreign language.
Paradis (1994) helped me understand the difference between my previous and new ways of thinking. He defines two types of learning based on different types of memory: implicit and declarative. Declarative memory comes from the facts that students store away when learning a language and we could say my “thinking” shows I was giving priority to declarative knowledge. Implicit competence comes from a different kind of learning, the “procedural memory” a student gains by trying to use the language. They don’t have any direct connection. This implies that a declarative memory of explicit knowledge, such as facts and grammar rules that can be explained in a declarative way, can’t become implicit knowledge, such as speaking with automaticity. I was silent because I was locked in building declarative knowledge. I was being active from my point of view (I didn’t sleep, I was listening carefully, and taking notes as much as possible) and I was obsessed with the idea that I would suddenly be able to talk the day I had gathered all that knowledge. My change through the later experiences demonstrate that I was shifting to using Paradis’s procedural memory. Naturally, I struggled, because I wasn’t used to relying on implicit competence.
I came to this conclusion only 2 years ago, in 2017. But I really think it also explains so well why students who don’t have much vocabulary, but try right away to use language orally, can have more natural conversations than students who spend years studying difficult words and grammar, waiting for a better “stage” to come that will allow them to start speaking. So, for those students stuck in the declarative knowledge mode of learning, helping them develop automaticity can probably give them the implicit competence that leads to the feeling that they can communicate. When a foreign language just seems to come naturally to your mouth, without having to think about the grammar, it is a kind of magic, isn’t it?
Paradis, M. (1994). Neurolinguistic aspects of implicit and explicit memory: Implications for bilingualism. In N. Ellis (Ed.), Implicit and explicit learning of second languages (pp. 393-419). London, UK: Academic Press.
Malaurie Koshikawa, is French and has been living in Japan for about 20 years. She has been a French teacher for 20 years and, for 14 years, a part-time English teacher in different universities in Nagano prefecture. She can speak French, English, and Japanese.