The never-ending story of L2 learning

A lot of discussion is going on among EFL teachers on how to help language learners to reach a certain level; how to help them improve, go up to a higher plateau, walk further, dig deeper, etc. It’s as though we assumed that the learners are never good enough; never satisfied with what they’ve achieved. However, it recently struck me that maybe, some learners have already achieved their desired level and they want to maintain it and stabilize it. This is just as difficult as the way up. In some cases it’s even harder. 
This can happen, for example, when learners suddenly and unintentionally find themselves among peers who are far below their level. This is the case of some of my students who passed the FCE exam last year, for which they had worked very hard and intensely, but later on when everything was over they quit attending various extra courses and now they only live on their previously gained knowledge.
I imagine that the fall is immediate and quite painful. The feeling that you suddenly don’t have to work so hard may be intoxicating at first; we all know how heady success may feel. But it’s also terribly easy, in a matter of a couple of months or even weeks of inactivity, to forget many of the things one once learned so laboriously. The feeling of despair when one realizes that all of a sudden they can’t recall phrases and words they once knew so well must be frustrating. I reckon it may even make one feel angry – angry with oneself, with the peers, with the teacher, with the whole world… 
Human being is a strange creature. Laziness is hiding and lurking ready to strike when one is vulnerable and unprepared. But it’s hardly surprising. It’s extremely difficult not to be lazy if there is no motivation not to be. So slowly and unexpectedly, the one who used to be high above the level of their peers suddenly starts losing points. They fail a simple vocabulary test, for example, because they had expected it to be too easy to give it a damn. Meanwhile their weaker peers get straight As because they’re used to working hard all the time.
The problem is obvious – we (read: the whole society) sometimes indirectly and implicitly encourage our students to believe that once they pass an important exam or obtain a prestigious certificate, it’s over for good. However, if we don’t encourage them to get used to setting goals permanently, they’ll often experience a feeling of bitter disappointment. So the question should be: OK. When I pass the FCE exam, what will my next step be? The document itself is worthless if it’s not backed up by a new plan or goal. 
At the beginning I talked about maintaining and stabilizing a level. But now I think it’s quite impossible to maintain a level unless one wants to permanently get better at something. To put it simply, it’s either rise or fall. If one does little or nothing, it’ll ultimately mean deterioration. If one constantly works hard and sets oneself challenging goals, it will inevitably lead to stabilization or even improvement. 
I think that the habit of working for material results and outcomes has become a disease. Those who work because they simply love what they do will finally achieve perfection anyway. Or they may not but that doesn’t matter to them. Those who work for perfection itself may never reach it; even worse, even if they reach it, it’ll be difficult or impossible to keep it up and their unfulfilled wishes and dreams will be slowly killing their desire to go on. I believe that true perfection is infinite and it’s always born out of love and passion. This means that my job is to inspire and motivate; my job is to plant seeds of passion and love for the language. My job is to show the direction, while the students’ job is to get there. And once they get there, they should set off for another journey, equipped with all the useful life skills and learning strategies that the education system offered them.


About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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2 Responses to The never-ending story of L2 learning

  1. Baiba says:

    Hi Hana, you have described the situation which I have experienced too.
    Our students have to take the FCE exam in March and afterwards they just bring their bodies to the classes but in their minds they have finished learning, and it is so hard for them to make an effort to study on, to realize that there are a gazillion more things (words, structures, patterns) to learn, that they are not perfect yet.
    The system makes them believe that whatever they learn, it's for the exam, not for their own development that should never stop. I don't know how to change it. Yet.


  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for your comment, Baiba. The group I'm talking about in my post is one of the most diverse ones I've ever had, and I've written about them profoundly on this blog. Some of the weakest Ss are worse than kids 3 grades lower. The most proficient are those who sat the FCE exam in March, and now when the brand new academic year started they've suddenly come to realize that it's really difficult not to lose what they achieved. Needless to say they didn’t really do much to work on their language skills during the holidays. I feel very bad about it because I can’t do very much for them in the class. This is really up to them to keep working if they want to maintain the same level or improve their English. Occasionally they throw in a remark, though not explicitly; that the classes at school are a waste of time, but that’s not true. If they worked hard in classes, they could get more out of them than they think. Ironically, they sometimes make basic errors in writing and tests, and they illogically blame it on the lack of challenge, though I can guarantee that I’m including stuff which is challenging and useful. Basically, it’s just a lack of diligence and motivation on their part. But I fully understand them. They have other subjects to study because their school-leaving exam is approaching, so most of their energy is pointed at this direction. Well, it’s not easy. English as a foreign language will always be the most controversial subject in his respect; a double-edged sword, so to speak. Ss can learn so much on their own and some of them do, which then brings about so much diversity, while in other subjects it’s more balanced – Ss still gain most of the knowledge from the teacher and on the spot.


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