Getting all the way to fluency

Recently I’ve been writing a lot about learning English, for a client, and it occurs to me that there are a lot of ways to do it badly, or in a halfhearted manner.

I recall reading last year about Syrian refugees coming to Canada and starting English classes, which made me think about my time learning Portuguese as a teen when we moved to Brazil. In one of the very first classes, our young and hilarious teacher taught us a selection of “palavrões,” or swear words. Her rationale was excellent: “I want you to be aware if people are calling you rude things,” she said, grinning. I wonder if Syrians are being taught English curse words, because their kids are certainly hearing them on the playground when they go to school.

Learning a new language is utterly intimidating, particularly when you know you will need that language in order to survive and thrive in a new country. I at least had the twin privileges of attending school in my native language and already knowing how to speak French, a closely-related language upon which I could draw for comparison. Syrian people have no such privileges here, nor do Somali, Chinese, or Ukrainian people. And yet they come, they learn, and they become part of our society.

Sometimes, though, I feel as though the traditional methods of language teaching are not enough. They are taught from textbooks, in classrooms, where the teacher speaks most of the time and they must listen. When they practice, it is usually in the context of trying to navigate the grocery store, or a parent-teacher conference, or the doctor’s office. When they make mistakes, or grasp for words they cannot find, we as Canadians, as champions of multiculturalism, as polite people, try to help them as best we can – and usually we make the transaction or conversation work, we come to a reasonable understanding, we get by. We want them to feel welcomed and supported.

We don’t, on the whole, feel comfortable correcting others when they speak. At least, I don’t, and I know most of my acquaintances do not, either. (This does not apply to francophone Canadians, whose intense pride in their language leads them to offer corrections and improvements to nearly every French sentence uttered by an anglo. Some people find this irritating, but I prefer to think of it as helpful.) Because of this, many new English speakers hit a plateau in their learning and never improve further. Why would they, when they can get by with what they know? Getting by, however, is not the same as thriving, and can make the difference between simply living in a community and truly becoming a part of it.

I would argue that it is much kinder and more helpful to offer the correct word or phrasing when a non-native speaker stumbles or trails off. How else, after all, will they learn? We feel no qualms about correcting children when they say “I no go bed” instead of “I don’t want to go to bed.” Why not gently and politely (as Canadians, of course) offer a corrected phrasing when faced with a sentence missing its articles or using incorrect verb tense or pluralization? We can all be teachers and supporters of new English speakers; we can all contribute to their success and independence.

We can also help by simply having conversations with people who are still learning English. Instead of trying to extricate yourself from a challenging exchange in the grocery store line, why not simply settle in and have a good chat about the weather while you wait for your turn? Every conversation that an English learner has can help build their ease and confidence with the language.

I’m certainly not saying that we need to hold immigrants and English learners to some sort of gold standard of perfection and that anything less than fluency is a reason to ridicule them or tell them they aren’t trying hard enough. English is really, really hard to learn, and harder to learn well. But it is achievable, and I am arguing that it takes more than just sitting in a classroom reading along with a workbook, or having scripted dialogues with classmates, to achieve fluency. For me, learning Portuguese really coalesced when I began speaking it with my friends, Brazilians who realized that always speaking English to me instead of Portuguese was not helping, but hindering, my progress. 23 years later, I am still fluent, and I don’t speak like a textbook. I credit my friends for that.

If people want to learn English, and are open to becoming truly fluent, help them out. Don’t assume you know the word they’re looking for and proceed accordingly: talk around the missing word, and when you find it, tell them what it is and help them remember it. Offer gentle correction when you hear an error. Have longer conversations if you can. Whether you know it or not, you’re part of their learning process.

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