Thursday, 11 April 2013


Words to send shivers down an EFL teacher’s spine.

Everyone learns their mother tongue within their first couple of years. And they do it without the help of teachers or text books. After two years their grammar may not be all that perfect, but it will become so in the next two or three years. And their vocabularies will increase day by day. All this minus any teacher or book to help with the process. Fast forward a decade or two. Now he or she has decided (or the parents have decided) it’s time to learn another language. It’ll be English, in all likelihood. This should be easy, for now they have a patient, experienced teacher and the latest text book to help with the task.

This time the learning process will take a helluva lot of more work than first time around. But eventually, after a lot of hard study and determination, English will become their second language. Mission accomplished! I take my hat off to them. Acquiring a second language is not an easy task. I know. I’ve tried it, and succeeded with only one of the two languages I chose.

Yes – first language - second language. The learning processes are far removed from each other, but most learners cope and eventually succeed. Most, but not all. There are some students who just can’t assimilate a second language no matter how hard they or their teachers try. Slow learners or problem learners, let’s call them. Every teacher will encounter them. Let’s talk about slow learners first.

Why exactly are they trailing far behind their classmates in the learning process? It could be a matter of low intelligence, but not necessarily so. They seem to have some kind of mental block to new vocabulary, or to new grammar points, or to English pronunciation. Most often to all three. And it’s not for the want of trying on the learner’s part. They try and they try and they try, yet still they’ve forgotten the vocabulary in an instant, they mangle the grammar beyond recognition, and their pronunciation sounds more akin to Latvian than English. As one teacher commented to me, “It’s as if Chang has reached his learning plateau, and there’s not a hope in hell he’ll ever break through it.”

What does the teacher do? Slow the lesson down to the extent that Chang is able to cope? No – impractical. It’s not fair on the other students for one thing. And in many cases it would mean slowing down to the point of immobility. Forge on at your normal teaching rate and let Chang flounder along in a sea of incomprehensibility? That’s probably the best solution, but some teachers feel that rather than a solution it’s a cop-out. Chang has paid the same tuition fees as his classmates, and to cast him to the winds is an abrogation of the teacher’s duty. There are some managements who agree with this latter school of thought and who set up a special one-to-one class for the slow student. This measure, though well-meaning, invariably turns out to be no help at all. The slow student is overwhelmed by the sudden intense attention he’s getting, and the block becomes even more pronounced. So what is the solution? Sorry, there isn’t one. Some people can learn a second language, and some can’t. It’s as simple as that.

Now, problem students. Here, the problem is not a language block; it’s a personality disorder that has the student’s mind in its firm grip, and their preoccupation with this disorder rules out any input from you or anyone else. It may be attention deficit disorder. These are the students whose attention spans last all of thirty seconds. The students who can’t sit still; fiddling with anything at hand, legs constantly jiggling, who come out with random, unrelated questions, and spout incessant rubbish all through the lesson. Or it may be unmanageable inferiority complexes. The students who will never look anyone in the eye, will talk in the barest of whispers, will hunch themselves up in their chairs to make themselves appear insignificant and near invisible. Or students with aggressive tendencies, or eating disorders (Japanese girls specialize in them), or dyslexia. So, what is the teacher to do when one of these unwelcome unfortunates appear in his or her class? My advice is: appeal to the management to get the problem student transferred out of the class and preferably out of the school altogether. These people have no place in a language class, disrupting lessons and driving everyone to distraction. They should be in special-needs schools, being dealt with people who have training in such things. And that doesn’t include your garden-variety EFL teacher. Sorry.

EFL minus the B.S. is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle form. Buy it, and you’ll get not only an entertaining  dissection of the English teaching profession worldwide, but also a bunch of original, workable teaching tips, advice on how best to land a job, and a country-by-country breakdown of living and working conditions all over.


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