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Teacher-induced neuroses

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Over my years of learning, teaching and training I have become increasingly aware of the impact that teachers can and often do have on our learners, and their attitudes to English. Affective factors, such as attitude and self-esteem, are well known to have a profound effect on learners’ motivation and ultimately on their success or failure in learning.

Rod Bolitho

As teachers we need to take some responsibility for influencing these factors in a positive or negative way. Yet, time and again, when I observe classes and talk to learners I notice signs of near-neurotic behaviour in them, and in many of these cases pretty quickly realise that the source of the anxiety that leads to this behaviour is the teacher. In this short article and in the blogs that follow this month I will mention and discuss some of these common neuroses and suggest ways of overcoming them.

Error neurosis or ‘lathophobia’
Fear of making mistakes is the mother of all neuroses and almost certainly the most common source of anxiety in language learners in the public forum of a language classroom. I first became conscious of it as a learner in a Modern Greek evening class when the teacher-priest had the habit of pointing out our mistakes by drawing himself up to his full height and intoning lathos – the Greek for mistake – in a profoundly haughty and disapproving way which had us all believing we had committed one of the seven deadly sins. I lasted just one term in that class.

  • The notion of mistake as sin is very deeply rooted in educational cultures around the world, the more so since mistakes in any subject can be totted up as a means of giving grades and of distinguishing between strong and weak students. 
  • Learners are also often concerned about looking foolish and losing face in front of their peers if they make mistakes. Research into interlanguage and second language acquisition, so often irrelevant to day-to-day classroom concerns, did deliver a useful insight in this instance in the form of a useful distinction between types of error, and also of Krashen’s oft-cited assertion that errors may be seen as ‘stepping stones on the way to learning’. My own experience as a learner and a teacher backs this up, and I go along wholeheartedly with the notion that learners benefit from observing language, hypothesising about it, testing out their hypotheses by experimenting and working with the feedback they get from their interlocutors. We as teachers would do well to allow time and space for this kind of experimentation and to offer learners support rather than a scolding when they do make mistakes.

When I was trained as a teacher of English I was told that every learner’s mistake was ‘my’ mistake, the result of inadequate teaching. As a result, I beat myself up about my learners’ mistakes for years afterwards until I realised that for progress to be made they had to start taking responsibility for their own learning and that learning from mistakes is one important part of that process. That realisation lifted a great weight from my shoulders and helped me to be concerned much more with my students’ learning and less obsessed with my own ‘performance’ as a teacher, which was a big breakthrough in my career.

Verb tense neurosis
Teachers inspire many different grammar-related neuroses in their learners, but perhaps the biggest of these is the one about verb tenses. Its origins almost certainly lie in the hard-to-shake-off tradition of Latin teaching.  The syllabus in a typical Latin course was built largely around the verb tenses, a forgivable decision considering that Latin has a very formal and highly inflected system and is also no longer used for everyday communication (though I did once have a lively conversation in Latin with a fellow passenger on a train to Reggio in South Italy!).

English verbs are minimally inflected, subjects are clearly signalled through nouns and pronouns, and time is as often flagged by time adverbials as by the verb itself.

Consider these examples, all from recent authentic sources:

  1. What time do we start tomorrow, 8 or 8.30? (participant on a seminar in Austria last week)
  2. Are you coming to the dinner tomorrow evening? (phone call from a colleague today)
  3. I’ve just sent you an e-mail to tell you I can’t make it (reply to the previous question)
  4. I’m calling ‘cos I just got your message (voicemail message from my sister-in-law)
  5. If you don’t go tonight, I don’t (a friend, about a social event)
  6. She says she wants a DVD (me to my partner during a phone conversation with my daughter)

In the first four examples above, the time adverbials are crucial to the message. Without them, and with only the form of the verb to go on, the message loses its precision. In example 3 the speaker chooses present perfect whereas in 4 she uses the simple past. Both are OK. The real force of the messages is in the immediacy expressed by the word just. The speakers in example 5 and 6 ignore the rules which learners are all too often tortured with about the sequence of tenses in ‘if’ sentences and reported speech respectively, and simply say what they want to mean; in the first case it’s a kind of ultimatum and in the second the reporting refers to a conversation still in full flow.

My take on this is that we need to spend far less time on teaching the tenses and some rather dubious rules about the sequence of tenses, and a lot more on equipping learners with a good range of time adverbials and on liberating them to allow them to say what they want to mean, rather than teaching rules and then complaining that English is a badly behaved language with a lot of exceptions.

Still to come:

  • Phrasal verb neurosis
  • Article neurosis
  • The perfect pronunciation neurosis

In the meantime, your thoughts on any of these neuroses would be very welcome!