My fascination with language first emerged when I was fourteen years old during a student exchange to France. I had studied French for three years and thus had a limited but basic grasp of the language. After about a week in France, I was getting ready to go to bed one night when I suddenly noticed that my internal self-talk, that is, the thoughts we have in our mind, were in French! That self-talk was basic, almost child-like as my knowledge of French was so limited but nevertheless in French. I was fascinated how this could be. I realized then that I had an overwhelming interest in languages and that I not only wanted to learn them but also had a keen desire to know more about how languages are taught and learned.
I took my first steps related to language teaching in high school in Germany when I began tutoring. I tutored some Turkish girls, who were a few years younger than me, in German grammar and orthography as well as in English, which I had begun to learn in grade seven. In my early twenties, I moved to Canada and after having mastered English, I began to tutor students from other countries who had come to Canada to study English. However, I also taught and tutored friends who wanted to know more about German. These sessions were mostly for fun, but already back then I realized that different people learned differently and not everyone had the same speed or ability to pick up words and sounds.
One of the enjoyable parts about teaching is the process of showing or explaining a concept in language and to watch the expression of concentration on students’ faces while they try to grasp a new concept. Suddenly, in the moment in which they comprehend, the expression miraculously changes from sincere concentration to a bright shine and the expression of understanding in the eyes. It doesn’t always come quickly, but when it does come, there is nothing more fulfilling than to have helped a person be one step closer in being able to express his/her thoughts in a new language. However, teaching/tutoring is not only gratifying in terms of sharing knowledge about language; it has also always brought the joy of learning about the student’s language and culture. Be it cultural knowledge like learning about the different customs of how things are done in another country or my student’s language itself. Learning is a two-way street, and it helps to put yourself into your student’s shoes first to understand his or her perspective and then to use this knowledge to create and fine-tune the way the language to be learned is taught. Working with what the student brings to the table. The process of teaching and learning a language is a slow one, gradual in such a way that it is often difficult to watch the process of improvement. However, there is progress, slow and steady for those who study. Many students don’t realize that learning language is a process and not a product. That means there won’t be a date when we’ll be perfect. However, there will be a time when we’ll be able to accomplish certain things in the language, for example, going to a restaurant, knowing most of the vocabulary associated to eating and ordering food, reading the menu, asking and understanding the waiter. There is no secret trick to get to where you want to be in the language you want to learn. There are no short cuts. There are tips, but ultimately, you still have to invest the work, the studying, the effort.
I remember when I was studying Spanish in my early 20s. I didn’t study vocabulary very hard. Because everything came so easily to me in class due to knowing French, I thought for some reason I’d be exempt from having to memorize vocabulary. The result was that I was an active student when it came to new material, but I had an almost non-existent ability to utilize what our class had studied previously.
There was one incident in class that embarrassed me so much that I remember it vividly even over a decade later. One of my classmates was a likeable guy in his early 40s. He studied hard, and it was obvious that moving within that foreign language wasn’t easy for him. I, on the other hand, easily repeated and imitated the words and phrases the teacher introduced. One day, the teacher introduced the word for “shade”. Always having been interested in languages, I asked whether there existed a similar distinction between “shade” and “shadow” in Spanish as it existed in English. My aforementioned classmate laughed out loud and exclaimed: “She can’t even string a sentence together saying ‘How far away is the train station’ but asks for tiny differences in the meaning of words? Hilarious!” I laughed it off, but really, it hit me that he was right: I needed to study at home if I wanted to make any progress with my communication skills instead of only being entertained by being introduced to new words and phrases.
A few weeks after this incident, I went on a trip to England and studied vocabulary on a long train ride. When I came back and joined the class, I participated with a sentence or two. The teacher looked at me in happy surprise and remarked that I had studied vocabulary! He had noticed immediately. Now that I am a teacher myself, I can relate to that experience. I now find it easy to tell whether a student has studied.
In fact, it’s such a joy when a student has studied and contributes to class with language that we have previously studied. Those are the rewards of my job: To see the students beam with pride and joy of being able to communicate and express themselves. It gives me immense satisfaction of being able to spread the joy of using another language to talk about the world, our opinions, feelings and experiences.