My take on grammar charts and tables

Teaching a foreign language is neither duck soup nor child’s play. At times it can get pretty frustrating, especially if you feel there’s a discrepancy between what you believe you should do and what you actually do in reality. Here’s one example: 
At the moment, in one of my young learners classes (A1/A2), we’re doing the so do I and neither do I type of responses, such as in the following example:
A: I’m very happy today. 
B: So am I.
C: Oh, I’m not.
Just a short while ago we also did question tags, which, to my non-native speaker’s over-analytical mind, have a lot in common with the above structure. 
You’re a teacher, aren’t you? 
He loves English, doesn’t he? 
You will come, won’t you?
Now, I’m convinced that to be able to fully grasp, learn and acquire these grammatical structures, my 14-year-old students need to employ a lot of cognitive processes at one go. Apart from having to be aware of the word order rules, they need to identify the auxiliaries or extract them from the main verbs. I know how hard it can get because whenever I try to demonstrate how the structures work, which I do by firing off examples, sooner or later I get stuck and mix things up. If the demonstration phase is long enough, I usually get so confused that at some point I start struggling when judging what is correct and what is wrong. Obviously, the problem is that I’m presenting the structures separately, out of a larger context, plus I tend to over-teach them. I know it’s not the coolest way to teach a language but I can’t help it. 
The reader may wonder why I am so silly a teacher. The thing is that the structures are part of the coursebook we use and part of the curriculum my colleagues and I once officially agreed on. This means that, apart from other things, our students will be tested on these grammatical points at some stage, and they’ll be given grades. Thus, I simply need to embrace the challenge no matter my inner reluctance.
 

If want my students to use, say, short responses expressing agreement or disagreement fluently and naturally in speech (where they are most likely to be encountered), they will need to see and hear lots of examples first. They will also need plenty of practice. Ouch – this sounds like the despicable PPP, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, I believe native speakers also pick up these structures through exposure. The trouble is that they do so over a much longer period of time, and most importantly, unlike L2 learners, they are exposed to heaps of meaningful context. These conditions are really hard to replicate in my teaching context of four lessons a week. 

As a result of the lack of exposure and meaningful context, my students tend to avoid the structures, if not explicitly required to use them, or they opt for an easy way out, for example for the alternative me too’ or ‘me neither’. As far as question tags are concerned, it’s not common to hear an English learner, even a fairly advanced one, use them in speech voluntarily either. This may be presumptive evidence that these structures are not a question of linguistic survival; simply because they carry little meaning. What can be expressed by including a question tag at the end of a sentence can actually be expressed through other means of communication, such as facial expression or intonation, or by using other forms, such as right?. These are language points which were learnt as vocabulary rather than grammatical items, and thus students use them more naturally and spontaneously. All in all, L2 learners will usually get their message across in the end, with or without proper question tags, because they can always easily do without them. 


That being said, I strongly believe that it’s quite unwise of coursebook designers to include question tags at such early stages of the course. However, what really bothers me is that they are presented in packages. I wouldn’t mind if they appeared here and there, treated as vocabulary items, but I find them a real nuisance if they are presented as grammatical structures, usually in the form of grammar charts and tables.


The only positive effect of the ‘chart’ approach I can think of is that students will be better able to analyze the language, understand how it actually works and transfer their knowledge to other linguistic areas, which may undoubtedly come in handy some day. For example, being able to identify the auxiliaries will help them make questions and negative statements more easily. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that practising analytical linguistic skills will eventually help my students become fluent users of the language. 


What happens is that some students have an excellent command of these easy-on-the-eyes charts without actually being able to use the content meaningfully, especially when caught off grammatical guard – that is during fluency practice, for instance. They can memorize the charts and tables perfectly and get a brilliant score in a test aimed at isolated grammatical points, but when faced with a more complex kind of test, they don’t perform as well as they expected. This must be really frustrating, particularly when they think they did their best to revise for the test.  

There’s one more thing that may appease my bad conscience; by giving my students a chance to analyze the language, I actually give them an opportunity to gain some control over their learning. They get a chance to understand the language and learn some tangible bits and pieces of its structure. This understanding, or a lack thereof, can later be assessed, and I dare say this kind of assessment is relatively fair – no matter how inaccurate and flawed it may appear to some. There are students who always struggle when producing a coherent sentence, but they feel quite comfortable when learning the rules of a language. It can’t be denied that, to a certain extent, these rules are flexible, but at least they help students to feel safe – even if only temporarily . Nevertheless, as a teacher I will always try to encourage my students to get rid of this crutch as soon as they feel confident enough to do so.

 

Much ado about Hangman?

The audit I wrote about in one of my previous posts went incredibly well, and the administrators were over the moon when filling us in on the excellent results at the latest staff meeting, where we teachers were awarded with words of praise, gratitude and appreciation of our hard work and discipline. 
As most of us are still in the post-inspection mode (read: more alert and working harder than usual), we keep coming up with various ideas for improvement of our professional endeavours. Even when sitting at a café on a Friday afternoon, we never cease to stop talking shop. As I was one of those ‘lucky’ fellows whose lesson the inspectors had chosen to observe, my name, among many others, has since been mentioned several times in a very positive context. I guess this must be the main reason why two of my colleagues (STEM teachers) expressed a desire to come and see a lesson of mine at some point in the future. To paraphrase them, they’d like to get inspired by all those amazing activities we English teachers use in our everyday teaching. 
I shouldn’t forget to mention that we’re normally required to observe two lessons per term, and quite logically and naturally we tend to choose classes related to the subject we teach. So English teachers usually observe other English teachers or teachers of foreign languages, and math teachers concentrate on math classes. 
As I had written about the benefits of observing teachers of subjects totally unrelated to the field one specializes in (here), I was not surprised when those two STEM colleagues mentioned that they’d like to see something new and fresh this term, mainly because they were fed up with seeing the same people and methods over and over again. What startled me a little though was the fact that they took it for granted that they’d see lots of examples of games and fun activities which they could later make use of in their own teaching. They pointed out in passing that they still remembered a lesson of mine they had once observed (I used to teach their kids privately and once a term we would invite the parents to come and see what we did) and that they still used some of those inspiring activities in their own lessons.
So why all the worries on my part? The thing is that my teaching is not the same as it used to be back then when I taught small kids in a private course. As it was an afternoon course and the kids came after their regular lessons, they were usually tired and sometimes even reluctant to spend more time in the classroom while their friends were home playing computer games or doing stuff they enjoyed. Thus my lessons had to be different and lighter in content if I wanted them to stay (and pay) for the whole year and more. Oftentimes the class was literally a continuous string of games aimed at practising some language points (which turned out to be successful to a certain extent). In other words, we did some speaking, little listening, very little writing, next to no reading, but an enormous amount of game-like activities.
This was obviously a double-edged sword. The kids were happy as long as we played something, but once I wanted them to do real language work, their hearts sank. Once the game element was missing, they suddenly looked bored to death. Language work was what they did all day at school after all. Needless to say, I later had to adjust my approach a great deal and since I started teaching in the state sector, I have changed it completely. Not that I never use games like Hangman and Bingo, but I definitely use them with caution. Obviously, the less I use them the more precious they become to my students. But more importantly, I believe I don’t really need them anymore to make my lessons fun. To be more precise, I don’t think my primary goal is to make my lessons fun; first of all, I want them to be interesting and meaningful. I should mention that this was one of the positives the inspector mentioned after she had observed me in action; she highly appreciated the fact that I had taught the way she finds appropriate for secondary school students and avoided the throw-and-catch-the-ball activities which she personally isn’t really into. Oh, lucky me. 🙂
So when my STEM colleagues announced that they’d like to get inspired by my ideas, I hoped they didn’t mean that they expected an assembly of brilliant and glamorous fun activities. This is something I no more specialize in and to be honest, I’ve had enough of this type of teaching. However, I’m not implying that various games and fun activities can’t spice up biology or math classes, for example. To the contrary, I can’t help feeling that such activities actually make more sense in STEM subjects than they do in English lessons. But maybe I’m only sated with the way I used to teach in the past and I just want to get down to something more serious?

 

A thousand words – a thousand leaves

The other day I watched a comedy movie, starring Eddie Murphy, which tells a story of a terribly vain and shallow man who speaks a lot and listens a little. One day, out of the blue, a beautiful tree appears in the midst of his luxurious garden. Every time the guy utters a word, the tree drops a leaf and the man feels worse than before. The same happens if he writes his words down. He pays no attention to this strange occurrence until there are just about a thousand leaves left on the tree. He suddenly realizes that from now on he has to stop wasting words, otherwise he’ll die. 

Although it was a crazy comedy, to me the story had a warm, spiritual overtone. And thus it gave me lots of food for thought. I pondered what I’d do if I had such a mysterious tree in my garden. Who would I choose to talk to and what would I say to save as many words as possible? The truth is that I tend to speak a lot. I have to speak a lot because I’m a teacher. I remember I once lost my voice due to a cold I had caught, and I had to stop using my vocal chords for some time to let them heal. I suddenly realized how many words I used every day. But as I could do without most of them pretty easily once I was forced to remain silent, I came to a conclusion that many of them were totally redundant.   

When watching the movie, I thought of social media and how they make us waste words. Well, an exception may be Twitter where you need to squeeze your idea into exactly 140 characters. For me this is a useful exercise because it makes me rephrase and reconsider my thoughts before I post them. Sometimes I even give up and post nothing in the end. As far as Facebook and blogging are concerned, they both encourage me to choose my words carefully because what I say will be read by many people, and thus I want to make sure that I will be understood. But generally I think that lots of stuff available online is just wasted words.

I also thought of my English classes, especially my senior students who I train to react spontaneously to random questions. They must answer at any cost, even if they have nothing to say. ‘I don’t know’ is never accepted as a response. Moreover, they are required to answer in a certain amount of detail; the minimum is usually three complex sentences (ideally four to five) because this is exactly what they will be expected to do during their final English exam. So if I ask them “Do you like poetry?” they need to respond, even if they’ve never read a single poem in their life. In case they can’t think of a meaningful response, they need to circumvent the question and simply say something related to the topic. This is pretty challenging, especially for students whose interest lies somewhere else, such as in science or computers. I basically train them to waste words, but no matter how absurd it appears, this is actually part of my job as an L2 teacher. 
What also came to mind was the word limits for written assignments which my students need to respect to meet the criteria of their final exams. On the one hand, it’s useful for them to be able to delete redundant words and elaborate on their ideas because these techniques make them choose their words carefully and focus on the language they are using. This, I believe, helps them improve their language accuracy. On the other hand, it terribly restricts their imagination and creativity. What if they have a lot to say about a topic they are into, and thus they are eager to write more than the limit allows? And what if they have nothing to say, yet they are forced to blabber on a boring subject just because the teacher asked them to? Don’t I actually encourage them to waste the leaves of their mysterious trees? 
The truth is that communicative language teaching is a way of making students waste words. Introverted students, those who are too shy to speak or who just want to keep their thoughts to themselves, often get worse grades. No matter how sad it sounds though, oral production is an essential part of the overall assessment – how could I ever assess a student who just sits quietly in the room, listening attentively to what others say? I’d really love to respect those taciturn students, but I need to give them grades, and to be able to do this I simply need some of their leaves to fall down …. 

803 words wasted

One of my futile attempts at perfection

So, the big day has finally arrived and the place where I work is swarming with school inspectors. Well, swarming is not the right expression – actually, there are only four of them and they are almost invisible. They’ve been working quietly and efficiently in a room behind a door with a special lock, with their noses buried deep in heaps of documents. From time to time they lift their heads from the papers and go and observe a lesson. 
It was on Thursday when I learned that one of the inspectors, a very elegant and professionally-looking lady, was coming to my lesson too. Although I prefer to observe rather than be observed, and this was my first inspection ever, I wasn’t worried – definitely not about the methodology part of the observation. Firstly, they’d chosen a class I really like. Secondly, as someone having spent half my life behind the teacher’s desk, I’m fully aware of my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. Thirdly, I got lots of feedback on my teaching during my methodology course and some valuable advice from my administrators too. I should add that I regularly attend conferences and webinars and I know what is considered to be a ‘good lesson’. To put it bluntly, I think I know what the inspectors might expect.
Thus, early in the morning the next day, when I was as fresh as a daisy and full of beans, I made myself a nice cup of coffee and got down to work. I should mention that I never make detailed lesson plans but I know it’s wise to have one at my disposal when I’m being observed. When writing up the plan, I kept in mind that the inspector might ask about the lesson objectives. By the way, stating them has never been one of my strengths. Nevertheless, I finally managed to come up with some acceptable wording and I gradually included all the stages that should be present in a decent lesson based on communicative principles. I didn’t want to include activities and methods unfamiliar to my students because I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable. I suspected that an experienced inspector would tell immediately that I was building Potemkin villages anyway.
Before the lesson I made sure that the board was clean, that technology worked and that the room was properly illuminated (yes, inspectors focus on these things too). I let some fresh air in and made some minor changes to the seating arrangement so that no chairs were in the students’ way in case they were asked to stand up and walk around the room. I asked the students already waiting in the class to get ready for the lesson – books and pens onto the desks, food into their bags. I wanted everything to be perfect. All in all, I was well-prepared, possessing all the knowledge about teaching and stuff. Yet, the inspector wasn’t 100% satisfied with my performance. She gave it precisely 95%. Let me describe what happened.
Later on, when the inspector and I were walking up the stairs heading towards the classroom, she asked me lots of questions about the class. For example, she wanted to know how big the group was (10 kids), how long I’d been teaching them (for 5 years), if there were kids with special educational needs (yes, there is one boy), what methods I used to help the boy learn effectively (I give him extra time during tests, read texts for him if he asks me to), where I got information about how to work with these kids (from a special adviser working at the school), etc. I was alert and tense but before we reached the classroom I seemed to have passed the first checkpoint. So far, so good.
At some point in the lesson the inspector got up and walked around the classroom to look at the students’ notebooks (the paper ones). When I saw that she’d opened one owned by a boy whose handwriting is probably the messiest in the group, I knew that she had just discovered the first flaw. Although I had suspected that the inspectors might want to check out some of the students’ written production, I hadn’t asked the kids to rewrite their messy notebooks. The thing is that it’s a class of 16-year-olds and some of them don’t even bring their notebooks regularly, and most of those who do don’t take notes consistently anyway. They use their coursebooks and workbooks but their notebooks are terribly neglected. I’m quite liberal in this respect; it’s a very responsive and motivated class so I don’t force them to take notes or write neatly. But maybe I should consider this in the future. 

Somewhere in the midst of the class, I realized that my timing had gone all wrong (typical, I always include too much) and so I had to skip a big part of the plan. Despite the little obstacle, I didn’t panic. It turned out to work well in the end and the inspector later appreciated this particular adjustment. What she didn’t like though were some aspects of the listening part, which I had included in the plan towards the end of the class. She pointed out that the listening had been ‘deafening’ (I admit I should have checked the sound from the back of the classroom, but it seemed OK to me) and too long. I estimate it was about 3 minutes max (I played it twice, which made it 6 minutes long), and the students had no problem completing the true/false comprehension check exercise, even though it was a challenging topic (ecology). In addition, the kids are used to much longer tracks. But maybe she was right and I should have structured a bit more. I’ll try next time and see if it makes a difference. 

In hindsight, I think I should have included the listening earlier in the lesson because I didn’t have time to wind up the lesson properly, which she considered the biggest flaw of the lesson, plus I announced the homework assignment just when the bell rang. I obviously know this should not happen – I still remember my teacher trainer’s advice: everything that happens after the chime doesn’t leave a single trace in the students’ memory. Well, my students are responsible enough and they (almost) always do their homework but this is obviously no excuse. 

As I said, I’ve taught this particular class for five years and I see them four times a week, which undoubtedly creates some unique teaching conditions. For example, as I know I’ll see them the next day again, sometimes in less than 24 hours, I believe it’s not a disaster if I there’s no time left for the recap or the final words of praise (I obviously give them positive feedback throughout the lesson). Oftentimes the bell rings in the midst of my sentence or in the middle of an exercise and I just say: OK, thanks, that’s it, to be continued tomorrow. I’m not very happy when this happens but that’s the way it is in reality. The inspector said that I would feel uncomfortable if she left the room without any feedback but I think it’s different because I’ll never see her again. But maybe I should think of a fixed final ritual, which I’ll always stick to. 
To conclude, no matter how thoroughly you prepare a lesson, how experienced you are and how much you know about methodology and inspectors, things may go wrong anyway. Obviously there are things which you can’t anticipate or influence. Also, there’s so much going on around you, so much to think about that you simply overlook details which the observers can spot immediately with their trained eye. And even if you can unveil the flaws yourself, it’s often too late to fix them on the spot. On a more positive note, the inspector said that overall my lesson had been excellent – the students had been engaged and motivated all the time and they had learnt a lot. More importantly, the boy with special educational needs talked to me privately after the lesson and said it had been one of the best lessons he remembered. 🙂

Blogging habits

Being a blogging addict, I can’t but take up another blog challenge, this time coming from the mind and pen of Zhenya Dnipro. In her recent post, inspired by Vedrana Vojkovic’s questionsZhenya planned to reveal some of her blogging rituals, and she invited other bloggers to do the same. I immediately fell in love with the idea and left a lengthy comment on Zhenya’s blog, thinking I was finished. However, later I discovered that Ljiljana Havran and Sirja Bessero had shared their blogging habits in more detail on their own blogs, so I thought it would be a good idea to give it a try as well. So in this post I’d like to address some of the questions I came across in the aforementioned posts, plus I’d like to answer my own question too. 

The first question that comes to mind is: What is blogging for me? It’s definitely an activity pursued outside my regular occupation which I engage in primarily for pleasure. However superficial it may sound, I consider blogging my hobby. But it’s more than just an activity that occupies my spare time – for me it’s an object of an intense desire and enthusiasm. In short, blogging is my passion. Unfortunately, like most hobbies and passions, blogging is terribly time-consuming and thus inevitably gets on other people’s nerves. It eats into my family time and I confess that sometimes I lose control over my passion completely. Despite all this, it’s also a kind of therapy for me, so my family will have to endure this whim of mine from time to time, I’m afraid. 

I should stress that by blogging I mean the highly stimulating process of writing a post but also reading other people’s blogs and leaving comments on them. This is an equally fulfilling activity which I love as much as producing my own blog posts. I believe that commenting and replying to other people’s comments can sometimes be more interesting and challenging than writing up a post. Taking part in the dialogue created between the blogger and the readers requires responsibility, diplomacy, attention, focus, empathy, and lots of other skills. You can edit and delete anything on your blog, but it’s not so easy to withdraw a comment once submitted. Also, when reacting to somebody’s ideas, one has to make sure that their reaction is clear and unambiguous. It took me some time to learn to interact with fellow bloggers with confidence, so I believe that this is something that can and should be learned.
I’ve come to realize that apart from refining my communication skills, blogging is a good way of polishing my writing skills. I’m not only talking spelling, grammar and vocabulary now, which are obviously areas I practise a lot through frequent posting; I’m talking about the way a coherent piece of writing comes into existence. The need to come up with a suitable opening paragraph, a good title, or convincing ideas helps me refine my thinking skills too. The mental exercise I take every time I write a post keeps my brain sharp, which definitely comes in handy in my challenging profession.
Regarding my writing techniques, unlike many bloggers, I never take notes when an idea springs to mind. If I feel a flash of inspiration, I simply sit down at the computer and write and edit. If I’m not at my place, I try to retain the idea in my memory and come back to it later when I’m home. Sometimes I have no clue where I’m headed, but I usually manage to get to the point that was hidden somewhere at the back of my mind. A lot of my posts are inspired by what I read on other people’s blogs, and some of the inspiration comes from my own teaching experience. I usually have a single idea which I kind of wrap up in context or the other way around; I have the context and analyze it in an attempt to get to the core. 
The opening and final paragraphs are the most challenging parts for me. Maybe it’s a myth but I heard that it’s not good to mention the title in the very first sentence, and this is a rule I try to stick to, if possible. A friend of mine, an amazing discourse analyst, who occasionally reads my posts and gives me feedback, always reminds me of the fact that a powerful conclusion is the key to a successful piece of writing. I try to keep her advice in mind, but I suspect that this is one of my weaknesses – after getting things off my chest I impatiently hurry to finish off, and I hit the publish button despite having that nagging feeling that something is still missing. 
As far as the structure of my posts is concerned, I like to keep the paragraphs approximately the same length; I feel that this visual symmetry makes reading easier for the visitor of my blog. Whenever I’m not sure if the paragraphs are logically connected and thus my post appears somewhat incoherent, I try to imagine the classic exercise where students are asked to put the jumbled paragraphs in the correct order. I always keep in mind that each opening phrase should have some logical connection to the previous paragraph, and thus the order of the paragraphs should be clear and possible to work out.  
And finally back to the general; I’m happy if my post is between 800 to 1000 words long. To me, this seems to be an ideal number of words for posts of this kind. I believe that my regular readers are used to seeing posts of a certain length on my blog, and thus (perhaps subconsciously) I want to fulfil their expectations. As a rule, I always include an image. In the past, I used to have more visuals in my posts but now I think one is enough. Words have probably become more important over time. Anyway, the images I choose always relate to the key ideas of my posts, no matter how remotely. I consider them to be metaphors rather than direct representations, though.
 
I believe that to become successful, a writer/blogger needs this innate ability called talent. However, writing skills can undoubtedly be improved by lots of practice. Maybe it’s also useful to read those how-to-become-a-great-blogger tips from time to time, but the truth is that too much of a good thing is not always to the good. As blogging is primarily about interaction, one needs to attract visitors, those who will take the time to read, comment and promote the blog on social media. I’m grateful and happy to have so many amazing readers who visit and come back, willing to support me and my passion for writing and communication. They are one of the main sources of my motivation. Thanks to them I’m writing this post and I hope I will write more. 
 
 

 

One word for 2015

All the challenges currently going on in the bloggosphere are dangerously contagious. So it’s only understandable that I can’t resist the temptation to follow the example of other bloggers. Recently I’ve read a number of posts about people’s New Year’s resolutions, and I’m tempted to come up with my own take on the topic, but for now I’ve decided to take up another challenge, or a variation of it – the One word for 2015 challenge. The motivation comes from two amazing ladies and experienced educators, who handled the topic with bravura. Vicky Loras’s post about her one word was thoughtful and heartfelt, as usual, and Theodora Papapanagiotou came up with a playful and energetic post here.
I hadn’t had to rack my brain for two long to come up with the word that I would like to represent me in this New Year. It came out of hiding unexpectedly, in a triumphant manner, but I think it had actually been brewing and lurking within for a while. It started to emerge some time around Christmas, when I was keen on reading books describing amazing spiritual journeys and adventures. Although I don’t remember where exactly I read this or that, some of the most interesting quotes still ring in my ears, such as the one concerning wishes, which said something along these lines: if you wish something and would like it to happen, visualize it and write it down. 
So every night before I went to sleep, I spent some time contemplating and reflecting. My aim was to invent something I could wish and visualize, and then piously wait for it to happen. Surprisingly, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to come up with a sensible wish. I mean, I wasn’t able to come up with something I needed because I already had a life in which all my dreams had come true. Obviously, I could have asked for an infinite continuation of the satisfactory situation, but it somehow didn’t seem an appropriate wish; to me it felt like an attempt at clinging to something, not wanting to give it up or let it go. What if I would like to let it go some day? Wishing loads of money, being famous, or having a dream job appeared childish and trivial, and I didn’t want to squander the potential God’s gifts. Sometimes I felt like the main character in the story about The Three Wishes. 
And then it came to me one day. I realized that what I needed most to be happy and live my life to the fullest was constant CHANGE. Not that I felt I needed to change anything particular – anything already existing; I said that basically I was happy with the way my life had shaped itself. I didn’t long for a sudden, dramatic change or something like that. Actually, change has many meanings, such as to make or become differentto be transformed or converted, to give and receive something in return, to pass from one phase to the following one, to alter one’s attitude or opinion, etc. For me change is the law of life. It is life. It is progress.
Now, to be completely honest with myself, I mostly crave change for selfish and superficial reasons. I’m a person who loves to watch the seasons change and I never want a summer to stay longer than it is supposed to. I love it when autumn finally comes and I can smell the wet leaves on the ground. Also, although I can enjoy the moments of repose, to be truly and utterly happy, I need to keep myself entertained and mentally challenged. At the end of each academic year I yearn for holidays and at the end of August I can’t wait to start teaching again. As far as my profession is concerned, I’m not someone who recycles the same lesson plan every year. I don’t store grammar sheets in a huge, well-arranged file so that I could use them again at some point in the future. If I do keep them for rainy days, I rarely use them when the days come. I like to elaborate and innovate. 
To sum up my scattered thoughts, in 2015 I wish to stay open to new ideas and to be ready to change my view whenever it’s to the good. I want to be prepared to shed my old skin whenever I feel it is too tight because stubborn clinging to old habits and ideas means stagnation. By seizing every opportunity to change some of the unhealthy mindsets I struggle to get rid of, and giving up my bad habits, I hope I will gradually change into a happier human being. 
Overall, I wish for new, exciting experiences which would open new horizons for me and keep me moving on. I guess my mind is like a shark that can never stop swimming, otherwise it would die (well, it’s probably a myth but I like the metaphor). Anyway, here’s one of my favourite songs. 
 
 
And now that I’ve written it all down, it will certainly happen 🙂

Mistakes – a different perspective

If you’ve ever watched a world championship in figure skating, you know that there are two types of performers; the good ones, who do very well but finally end up without medals. Then there’s the second group; those who are stunning artists and never make a mistake during their performance. The same is true about musicians, dancers, opera singers, actors, footballers, etc. 
I’m sure that if I did any of the above mentioned, I’d fall into the first category. The thing is that I’m a born ‘error generator’. My capacity to make mistakes is enormous; I make rookie mistakes when I write on the board in class, I invariably make errors when I produce my blog posts, countless slips of the tongue happen to me whenever I speak publicly, I used to make mistakes when I played a musical instrument in front of an audience, I make careless miscalculations when I count my students’ test scores, things slip out of my hands when I’m preparing a meal, you name it. In short, whenever I aim at a flawless performance, I make a mistake. It almost feels like a curse. 
Yet people say that mistakes are a blessing in disguise. Some of the most popular assertions and quotes about mistakes are:
If you’re making mistakes, you’re making new things.
If you learn from your mistakes, you’ll be a better person.
Mistakes are forgivable if you have the courage to admit them. 
If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. 
Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes. 
A life spent making mistakes is not only honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing. 
That’s all very nice. Judging by what some great historical figures said about the meaning of mistakes, there’s nothing wrong with me making them. But still, there are some situations in which I believe I should not be erring. Although I can accept the fact that making errors is an inevitable part of learning, they can be irritating once you think you’ve already learnt something or should have learnt it (provided that it is possible to learn something perfectly). I mean, why do I keep making mistakes in basic words I’ve known for ages? I know that ‘if‘ is not ‘of‘, and that ‘than‘ means something else than ‘that‘, so why do I constantly have to correct these words in my writing?  
I believe that apart from being a helpful part of one’s learning journey, mistakes must have another meaning.  If you make mistakes, and you are aware of making them (mistakes one doesn’t know about are pretty insignificant for that particular person), you do so for a reason – everything that happens to us has some meaning after all. It may be that mistakes help us focus; they help us concentrate and zoom in on aspects of life we tend to ignore. 
If I drop a glass, it’s not because I’m exceptionally clumsy but because I’m not living in the present moment – I’m thinking of million other things instead of focusing on the one I’m doing at that particular moment. If I publish a post with a typo in it, it’s not a disaster. But once I discover the typo, I should realize that I either wasn’t fully concentrated or patient enough when producing my writing. I published it too early, without proper proofreading and I didn’t stick to the rule to wait a couple of days, or at least hours, to read it again. If I stumble and jabber during my public speech, I may have not prepared it properly, or I may well suffer from stage fright, and this unpleasant experience tells me I should do something about it. 
Either way, I believe that I’m a habitual error generator because I’m an impatient and absent-minded person, and some power inside me probably encourages me to change it. It must be a loving power that wants the best for me, and it is probably the same power that prevents people from ending up in car accidents and hospitals. It’s the power that teaches people to slow down and perceive the details. Also, by making minor mistakes, noticing and handling them, I basically avoid the potentially bigger and graver risks. 
I’ve seen it many times before in the classroom too – students winding up their essays and handing them in straightaway without bothering to read them again. In such a case I force myself to be merciless as a teacher, and I subtract points for their carelessness, even though I understand that their mistakes are not a result of ignorance. I know they’re too restless to look back; that they prefer to look ahead. So it’s my red pen notes and bad grades that make them stop for a while and reflect on what they could have prevented. 
So yes, errors are an inevitable part and a spice of all learning endeavours, but they shouldn’t be magnified, nor should they be trivialized. It’s useful to teach our students that many mistakes they make are preventable. Trial and error is a fundamental method of solving problems but also, some mistakes are incorrigible, and the consequences can haunt us for the rest of our lives. Not always do we get a second chance. One error in an entrance exam test can destroy all our future dreams. The fact that I only have one chance and not another may make me feel frustrated, but it also teaches me to become more responsible for my deeds. By making our students (but primarily ourselves) more responsible and attentive, we help them to learn to overcome their potential frustration from future failures. It’s simply more palatable to discover that I’ve failed because I didn’t know the answer than because of my carelessness and a lack of concentration. 

 

Nature and nurture

 

On one of those idle days I’ve been recently enjoying to the fullest, I came across an article about a Czech politician who had suffered a stroke. This, as it usually happens, resulted in his inability to move one side of the body, but what was worse, in an ability to formulate and understand speech. After he finally successfully recovered from the consequences of the brain disorder, he shared his experience with the media. What I find most intriguing about his story is the linguistic part: he says that after the attack he forgot most of his mother tongue and that he ‘lost’ all his English completely. He managed to gradually restore his Czech and now he is almost as active a user of the language as he used to be. However, as far as English is concerned, he’s learning it from scratch; as if he’s never been able to speak it at all before.
I don’t know how well he spoke English but I suppose that it was his L2 and I suspect that he had learnt it the way people usually learn L2s here. Obviously, it’s hard to imagine that in a matter of seconds one can forget everything they once learnt or acquired so laboriously – be it the mother tongue or an L2. Nevertheless, my train of thought didn’t stop there and I wondered; what would happen to me if I suffered a stroke; how much of my English would be lost for good? In other words, I wondered how deeply English is rooted in my psyche. On a more pragmatic level, it also occurred to me that losing my English would mean losing the source of my daily bread.
Anyway, my next thought was the difference between one’s L1 and L2. More precisely, I thought of my native speaking friends and the difference between their English and my English, which are obviously on totally different levels – and now I’m not talking about levels in the usual sense of the ELT word. For them English is part of their identity; and forgive me a little hyperbole here: it’s almost part of their DNA. For me this role is obviously played by Czech, no matter how much English I immerse myself in.
While my native English-speaking friends have all gone through the twinkle-twinkle-little-star period, I started with How do you do? and How are you, Mr. Smith? They were linguistically ‘nurtured’ by their – mothers, fathers, aunts, and godfathers, while I was raised in linguistic ‘foster care’. Skipping the early linguistic stages is like skipping mother’s milk and starting on fish and chips. Your body does get what it needs to grow but will it thrive?
There’s a heated debate going on about the discrimination of non-native speakers in the ELT business. As a NNEST myself, I follow the discussions with great interest and at the moment my take on this is that NNESTs can become as good English teachers as NESTs (or as bad, for that matter). I’d say that overall we complement each other; we learn from each other, we benefit greatly from the discussions we have, we ask each other how to say/explain this or that, share methods and approaches to teaching, and so on and so forth. Our lives, as well as our students’ lives, are easier if we exist side by side. But I know I’ll never be able to offer my students what those once nurtured have to offer. 

For example, I never had the courage to teach English to very young kids. Also, and to everybody’s utter amazement, I’ve never made a serious attempt at teaching English to my own children. The youngest age I’ve dealt with was 4 or 5 years of age. It was terribly challenging and deep inside I felt I wasn’t qualified to do that – not methodology-wise but from the linguistic point of view. Later on I taught at an elementary school for some time; we (yes, I deliberately use we) mainly learnt children’s rhymes in class and sang songs, so for the very first time I had the opportunity to learn what babies learn to do in an English-speaking environment. 
When I hear English-speaking parents talk to their kids, I realize this is a language I don’t know. They use strange vocabulary I don’t understand and structures I’m not familiar with. Not that I think I need this kind of language to do my job well, but I definitely feel frustrated that I lack something that is, to my mind, so fundamental. I believe that the politician who lost his English completely was in a similar situation, and thus his knowledge crumbled to ruins beyond repair, like a castle standing on pillars of sand. 

Maybe, apart from the time issue, i.e. when one actually starts learning a language and for how long, it’s a matter of some kind of emotional bond too – we easily forget knowledge we acquired in a purely cognitive way and we are likely to remember information we learnt affectively. It may well be a question of mere survival and economy – if the brain is seriously damaged, it simply evaluates the situation and decided which data is worth restoring. One way or another, the most outstanding organ and the most fascinating system for the expression of thoughts and feelings need each other, otherwise they cease to grow and develop.