I am slightly too fond of the occasional high-falutin’ metaphor. I could, and probably have, go(ne) on about how they’re an essential function of how we explain – and maybe even perceive – the world around us, but more than anything else they’re useful. This is especially true in my position as a teacher and a trainer of teachers. We’re into that time of year when it’s all a little more hands-on, so if you’ll forgive me I’d like to give another one a test-run here. Thank you for your continued patience.
Swimming, it’s all about swimming. Every stroke you take while swimming provides propulsion but also creates drag. It pushes you forward but if even if you’re spot-on with your technique it will inevitably impede your forward movement slightly. In the truly extreme cases you see beginners screw up the timing on breaststroke so badly they end up going backwards.
The aim then is to take as few strokes as possible, which means each individual stroke should be as powerful and technically efficient as you can make it. Michael Phelps could manage an Olympic pool (50m) using about 34 strokes. When I was a lifeguard I could usually manage the 33m pool I worked at in about 23-24, and an former youth-international on the staff regularly did it in the mid-to-high teens (if those seem to compare slightly too favourably to a multiple Olympic medal winner, remember to factor in the glide after turning in a smaller pool).
One regular customer earned himself the nickname ‘Bath Toy’ due to his style; his trademark frenzied thrashing was usually put to great effect in hazing new staff, so indistinguishable was it from the panicked flailing of a genuinely drowning man. In as far as we could discern individual strokes, he usually managed the 33m in about 55. Still, you can’t deny he got a decent work-out from it so maybe he wouldn’t have given a toss about our less than generous analysis of his technique.
New teachers panic. That’s to be expected, if you are able to stand in front of a class for the first time ever and produce a smooth, compelling, and engaging lesson then you’re a better person than I. There is, however, a fairly specific form of panic for foreign language teachers attempting to conduct lessons entirely in the target language. Like the animal fear of fully submerging your face in water, it’s a form of panic that lessens with experience but never completely disappears. It’s liable to resurface (*ahem*) at any time.
For newer teachers it’s normally during explanations. For all that we try to emphasise the Show Don’t Tell aspects of language tuition, there are occasionally times when you really do just have to tell the students what you want – go there, do this, get that. The panic kicks in when you trot out your carefully prepared spiel only to find you’ve waded out of your depth and are now caught in a terrifying riptide of blankly mute incomprehension.
So you give it another go and, like the drowning man, the tendency is to flail; to try to do as much as you can as fast as you can to reach that seemingly impossibly distant driftwood plank of understanding.
No. Stop. Relax. Don’t swim against the current, go across it and do more with less. Most people’s initial instinct when faced with mis- or incomprehension is to rephrase things and add more detail. While those are perfectly reasonable strategies with native speakers they’re actively counterproductive with language learners because you’re not adding useful detail, your adding extra complexity that must be decoded by the listener.
Say exactly what you said again, word for word. Say it slower. If that still doesn’t work, say less, not more. Lower level learners haven’t developed the strategies native speakers take for granted when parsing sentences; they have no idea which words are important and which aren’t and so, until they learn otherwise, every word will be equally as important as every other. It’s why Simon Says is a crap game for beginners, it just doesn’t work because their language use isn’t sophisticated enough to edit out the seemingly less crucial information.
This is not an efficient form of communication. As a teacher it’s your job to teach them those strategies and that sophistication but, until you’ve done that, you have to supply them yourself. Less of the Noise, more of the Signal, because the more water you splash upwards, the less effectively you’re going to move yourself forwards.
I should also give a nod towards Ant of the unpronounceable Greek squiggle for dredging these ideas up again. See? The internet can occasionally be good for something other than porn and funny pictures of cats.