A Tale of Two Students

By Peter Martin

A student recently asked me whether I thought he was making progress. The short answer was yes, but the long answer was more complicated, and maybe not as encouraging as he wanted to hear. Another student has never asked me whether she’s making progress, and she never will ask, although she’s progressing far faster than anyone else I’ve ever taught. What’s the difference between these two people? The first is in his 50s; the second is 9 years old.

Diego and Raquel (I’ve changed both names, so they won’t be uncomfortable with me writing about them) are students I’ve taught one-on-one for a long time now: nearly a year in Diego’s case, and a year and a half in Raquel’s.

On the first page of Raquel’s notebook, where she wrote “I am seven years old” in our first class, she has since crossed out “seven,” replacing it with “eight”—and more recently she crossed out that too, writing in “nine.” When we began classes, she spoke no English, except the word “rabbit,” since that was her favorite animal. Over our first year of classes, she made steady progress. I used a lot of repetition with her, teaching her numbers and days of the week by always asking her to write and tell me the day, date, and time when we started class. We made flash cards and talked a lot about the same subjects—animals, food, colors, her family and friends—to get her familiar with basic vocabulary and grammar and comfortable with a few conversation types and patterns. Of course she learned a lot of English: We spent a couple hours together each week, and her encouraging parents, who speak English, exposed her to English books and movies outside of class, and spoke with her in English as much as she let them.

But then the family spent six weeks in Canada, where they have relatives. When Raquel and I resumed classes after our break of almost two months, I was astonished. Raquel was speaking in full, flowing sentences, and she understood everything I said, even when I didn’t bother to speak slowly or enunciate. I asked her parents, who had also noticed her striking improvement, whether she had spoken a lot of English in Canada. Her mom said no, that Raquel hadn’t spoken or even heard very much English while she was there, since a lot of their time was spent with other Colombians, with whom they naturally spoke mostly Spanish. Her mom’s theory for how the vacation in Canada helped as much as it did was that it opened Raquel’s eyes to the reality of an English-speaking country. Before that, of course, Raquel had known that people in some countries all speak English, but she hadn’t internalized what it means to live there and interact entirely in that environment. Just being in such a country for a month and a half flipped a switch in her brain, making her much more receptive, subconsciously, to her task of learning a new language. In the several months of classes since then, Raquel has made more and more progress. She still speaks and writes like a kid (which is to say, with a lot of mistakes), but she truly speaks and understands English now. And I remember when we started, when all she knew was “rabbit.”

Diego, on the other hand, has studied English off and on for decades. He studied in high school, at university, and later with Berlitz. He has also been exposed to a good amount of English through his work, since he’s an engineer who has worked in construction, including with business partners in North America. When we started classes, his English was better than he thought it was. I would have placed him in B1 on the Common European Framework, and though he spoke haltingly and with a lot of errors, from the beginning he could understand me and express himself well, even though he doubted that.

We’ve had classes regularly for most of the last year, and he is noticeably better now. I used to regulate how I spoke, making sure not to use too many idioms or complicated sentence constructions, and always to speak more slowly than normal. Now, I do none of that. He used to make many grammatical mistakes, and his pronunciation of a number of sounds was bad enough that it confused or changed the meanings of many sentences. Now, his pronunciation is far better, and neither his grammar nor his accent often impedes his expression.

But, unsurprisingly, the progress he has made is a fraction of the ground Raquel has covered. And at times Diego is frustrated that he doesn’t speak far better than he did a year ago. He still makes some of the same mistakes, and he still struggles with some of the same words, constructions, and sounds. He hates that.

Of course, for most people it’s very hard to make significant progress on language acquisition in middle age. Studying a second language for a few hours a week, when the rest of life is spent hearing and thinking in one’s mother language, makes real progress very hard, even more so at that age. And, especially when thinking about how fast nine-year-olds learn, a 50- or 60-year-old might feel like a fool for making the same mistakes after a year of classes.

I know that nothing is wrong with Diego, that he speaks fine, that he is making progress—and also that he simply might never realistically be able to reach the degree of fluency that he’d like to have. Of course I’ll keep being honest with him, and encouraging him at the same time.

But I’m interested in some help and advice. What do you do with adult students whose English isn’t at the level they wish it were, or the level they expect of themselves? How do you motivate them and keep them engaged and ambitious about continuing on the path of learning, even when they move down the path slowly?

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