Major Roadblocks to Language Learning

Words and photo provided by Dr. David Shaffer

There are very few of us – as language teachers or as language learners – who would suggest that learning a foreign language is an easy task, but there is far less agreement on just what makes it so darn difficult. It was exactly this question that was recently posed on one of the discussion boards I subscribe to, ELT Professionals. The question: What would you consider to be the biggest problem with language learning? The responses were as varied as the respondents, but all were noteworthy. Let us take a look at the most common responses and some others that seem most relevant to the Korean EFL context.

Student motivation was the most often mentioned problem in the discussion. Lack of motivation and loss of motivation on the part of the student, and the challenge to the teacher to inspire in the student an intrinsic motivation to learn were all mentioned. When one is required to do something rather than do it of their own free choice, there is bound to be less enthusiasm in doing it. So it is with English. In Korea, students are required to study English in grades 3 to 12, and many parents require these same students to study English outside of school. (More household funds are spent on private English education than on any other school subject.)

The loss of interest in learning English can be blamed mainly on the curriculum and the teaching methods. All too often, courses focus on grammar and vocabulary, and are test-driven. Lessons are teacher-centered. What we as teachers need to do is offer lessons that are not only interesting but engaging through interactive activities, through classes that are challenging, classes that lead to acquisition of new skills and the discovery of new knowledge. The rise in student motivation that the teacher witnesses can similarly lead to a rise in their own motivation.

Language Differences
The greater the differences between a language and one’s mother tongue, the more difficult that language is to learn. This certainly applies to English and Korean. Among the 60-plus languages that the U.S. Foreign Service Institute teaches, Korean is ranked among the top five in difficulty for English speakers to learn. English is equally difficult for Korean-speaking learners. There are great differences in their grammar and pronunciation systems, huge differences in their writing systems, and considerable differences in the cultures of Koreans and English speakers.

These language differences are givens; they cannot be changed. But what we as teachers can, and should, do is make ourselves aware of these differences and likewise make our students aware of them to make the language learning process a bit easier. It is in this area that native Korean-speaking teachers often have an edge over the native English-speaking teacher (NEST). An intuitive knowledge of Korean and the experience of going through the English-learning process themselves gives the Korean teacher the advantage over the NEST in explaining Korean–English differences and in empathizing with students in their English-learning trials and tribulations. The professional development challenge here for NESTs is quite transparent: they should familiarize themselves as much as possible with Korean to understand these Korean–English differences and draw on this knowledge in their teaching.

Teachers from distant parts of the world say the same thing: that student confidence, or more accurately, the lack of it, is a huge barrier to learning and speaking English. This lack of self-confidence is more closely related to a fear of ridicule and other culture-based inhibitions than to one’s actual proficiency level. Korean culture has long promoted quietly listening to one’s elders as a virtue, and this has been nowhere more true than in the classroom. Getting conversation-class students, and students in general, to break out of this culturally constructed shell can be challenging for any teacher. Even more formidable for those students who do build up the courage to speak is the fear of making a mistake.

Many Koreans suffer from what I have dubbed the “perfectionist syndrome” – seeing everything as a dichotomy (black and white, good and evil, right and wrong) rather than as endpoints on a continuum. Accordingly, if a student offers an oral response that is not 100-percent correct and the teacher corrects it, classmates may label the student as imperfect, wrong, and/or bad. What we as teachers need to do is explain to our students that making English mistakes is part of the language learning process – a necessary and beneficial part of the process actually. We need to convince our students that ridiculing learners for their errors is detrimental to language learning for not only their classmates but for themselves as well.

To build confidence and diminish ridicule in the classroom, it is quite advantageous to have students work in very small groups rather than having them produce English standing at their seat under the heavy gaze of the entire class and the teacher as well. Creating activities where students are paired up with a single partner, and without the teacher always listening in, forms a non-threatening environment in which students can shine without the fear of being teased. Pair work can gradually lead to work in triads and groups of four.

Group project work is also a great confidence-builder, both inside and outside the classroom. In addition to classroom practice, students need to practice their English in the real world, in real-life situations. Encourage them to do so. The foreigner population of Korea is now over six percent, and many of them speak English better than Korean. They can be found in places as varied as local churches, community international centers, and downtown taverns. Interacting with them (non-intrusively) will build confidence and stimulate motivation in the student as well as create an understanding of language differences. Let us work at removing some of these roadblocks for our students as they travel down the road of English language learning.

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