Empathy for Learners--One Way to Have more for TESOLers in Oman and Elsewhere
By Kevin Stoda
I began to learn foreign languages for the first time when I was nearly 20 years old. Over the next decades, I acquired advanced German and Spanish speaking skills, lower intermediate level Japanese and French skills, and beginning to elementary skills in a few other languages, including Arabic. Since I have been an adult learner of foreign languages for well over three decades, I have often encouraged other professional teachers of English to Non-Native Speakers of English to take time and learn another language every few years. I do this because doing so creates a closer understanding and empathy with the students whom we are instructing.
Another reason, I had begun to advocated "learning another language" as a great teacher training workshop topic over the decades is because when I first began to teach English in Germany in the mid-1980s, the head of our foreign language department (where I was teaching at the time taught) had mandated attendance of a workshop on "Learning Persian" for a staff of 4 dozen teachers of a great variety of European foreign.
Through the "immersion in Farsi" workshop I came to respect the head of the department, Peter Kirchoff very much--and took away many of the insights he made on learning and acquiring different languages. Peter also walked-what-he-talked to us language educators. For example, Peter had become fluent in Bahasa Indonesian and a few other Asian tongues (even as he took time to undertake physically grueling triathlons and led a huge language program targeting adult learners.)
That particular lesson in totally undertaken in Persian or Farsi was the first time I had ever tried to learn a non-European language. To this day, I can still introduce myself in Persian: (It'something like) "Esmi mann Kevin ast."
More importantly, learning-through-doing became part of my forte and mantra in talking and thinking about L2, L3, L4, etc. acquisition. For example, this focus of mine in the area of teaching writing skills means that when I develop a course in writing, I require the students to do more writing than most other teachers expect students to do--even if it means that they learn to appropriate my way of writing and thinking, too, when they create an essay. [This direct or indirect way of passing on language culture and language concepts may verge on cultural imperialism to some, but teaching language is constantly to be considered a political, social and economic act in most any situation.)
Writing and then rewriting or expanding the work-done is the best way for an L2 student to grow in that skill area of language acquisition. I really am not too worried about how many mistakes the student makes initially, but I just want them to do better over time. I recall that both my capacities in spoken and written Spanish and German had grown in succeeding years because I read and journaled a lot in those languages. Other times, I would take classes or received tutoring in German or Spanish from other native speakers of those languages on the revising of some of the writings I had originally jotted down in those target languages of my diaries in Mexico, Nicaragua or the USA.
Teaching English to Speakers of German and Spanish, too, over the years has enabled me to discover insights into the language (of the other) and other ways of thinking and arguing, too. Sometimes I have benefited from taking on several languages at the same time. For example, in Germany I studied both Spanish and French. In Mexico, I took French again. Back in the USA (in 1995 after teaching in Japan for two years), I took courses at the university level in Japanese, Spanish and German simultaneously one spring. .
Admittedly, now for some years I have felt stuck at a beginning level in Arabic and am currently not doing very well at learning Arabic--even as I teach in the Middle East. On the one hand, Arabic is particularly difficult because there are so many dialects and almost no one can speak formal Arabic well in the towns where I have been living and working for over a decade. On the other hand, I am also now married and have a child so I do not have as much time to spend on myself for studying nor for practicing new languages.
WE KEEP TRYING
Nonetheless, in order to maintain my own German language skills, I have recently offered to teach German for the first time in two decades here at the college where I am now working. In addition, last month I downloaded a language learning application onto my smart phone. The application is called Duolingo.
Since downloading applications is a new concept for me, I decided to download French from Duolingo--rather than trying out still another language. I had thought, "I haven't lived in France for over 3 decades, so I need hone skills related to that language first."