Monday, 8 March 2010

Speaking foreign makes you depressed, innit?

I know, I know, far too long, far too busy, but it's time to kick this old corpse out of its coffin and bring it lumbering back to life...

Is it possible that speaking in a foreign language can actually make you depressed?
It might seem a somewhat bizarre notion: After all, learning languages is supposed to be an incredibly liberating thing, allowing you to communicate with new people and new cultures, to open your eyes to another way of seeing the world.

That's what language teachers say, anyway - after all, they have only their jobs to lose.

But consider this report on a piece of research. The basic findings are that people who spend more time engaged in chat and gossip are significantly more likely to be depressed than people who engage in 'meaningful' discussions.

Now consider what we do with our students in class and what kind of topics are used - do these count as 'meaningful'? It strikes me that it is possible that the type of topics, along with the limitations of a student's level of language and their ability to express their ideas, may collude to be massively demotivating. We already know that students get frustrated at not being able to say certain things, but if we are also making them depressed by getting them to talk about, let's say, collections and hobbies to express the notion of habitual behaviour, then we are ladling on the problems. When we also consider that many students tend to drop out of English study round about Intemediate level - when their level of language is just emerging into an increasingly more sophisticated level of complexity, but the topic matters used are frequently banal - then we may have one of the (many)reasons why the dropout rate is so high.

Of course, it's all about keeping the students interested, curious and open-minded, but let's face it, unit 5, exercise 3 (listen to Brian talk about his dead pet hamster) probably isn't going to cut it. This is where getting to know our students as individuals, their hobbies, interests, likes and dislikes, is so important. It's also important to consider the fact that one person's notion of 'meaningful discussion' may not be the same level as another's. Matey in the corner might only satisfied with a weighty talk on Wittgenstein, while someone else will be thoroughly satisfied discussing puppies and shopping. It's all about the differentiation in class.
However, I suspect it may be difficult to find a text about Wittgenstein shopping for puppies.

1 comment:

Paul Maglione said...

Nice post, Paul: makes you really think. Myself, just the banalities of a standard cocktail party make me want to jump off the balcony, so imagine the despair provoked by made-up chit-chat imposed by someone a generation or two older than you are. There seems to be some unwritten concensus that EFL classroom discussion should be pitched at a standard 10 years and 50 IQ points lower than the learner's actual age and intelligence; I think we do them a huge disservice in this regard.


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