The Invisible Muzzle

Here are two scenarios having to do with language learning:

Scenario One

Lazy little 13 year old Jean-Luc Baison, having never studied English, comes over from Lyon, France to live with his family in New York City. Jean-Luc’s dad’s company has sent him there for a year.

Every time Jean-Luc hears words in New York, in whatever context, he gets a little closer to grasping their meaning in any English sentence. He hears EVER, for example, and he doesn’t really get it fully right away, but, in six months, the word has worked its way into the massive rolodex of fairly well known context driven words in his deeper mind. He’s not really aware of how it works, and he can’t really create a sentence with that word in it, of course, but he just knows what it means when he hears it, a little more each time, in a very vague sort of way.

Jean-Luc, who is lazy, learns the word anyway because of his constant exposure to the language. The washing machine churned about 16 hours a day and he heard the word here and there in a sea of other stuff and it got into his brain. He wasn’t using it yet, but it got in there. In sleep, huge work was done, but his lazy self didn’t participate. He was busy dreaming of whatever 13 year old kids dream about.

More English churning happens, perhaps another six months of it, and, when, the clean laundry comes out, Jean-Luc’s English language speech wardrobe includes the use of that word. During those six months, he makes mistakes, of course, but, in general, he can communicate in a rudimentary way in English, maybe using that word, or not.

Jean-Luc may even say, “EVER time I go there, I have fun” instead of “EVERY time I go there, I have fun”, but people don’t make a big deal about it – they understand what he is saying – but things develop at a fairly rapid pace in spite of Jean-Luc’s laissez-faire attitude towards learning English. That’s one of the reasons his parents accepted the position in NYC – for his language benefit.

Jean-Luc is learning English. (What I understand Dr. Krashen to be saying in the Monitor Hypothesis is that we just let Jean-Luc’s incorrect use of EVER slide and gradually, like with our first language, we move towards fluency until one day we can speak the language.)

Scenario Two

Little 13 year old Jean-Luc does not go to New York with his family due to the economic downturn. He enrolls in English classes in his middle school in Lyon, and begins studying English that way. His teacher, being French, has every duck that ever needed to be lined up in a row. Nothing is going to be left to chance in making sure that little Jean learns English. It’s all arranged, in the French way, in one of the most intellectually organized countries on the planet.

(The English word EVER occurs in Chapter 14 of the English book being used in Jean-Luc’s English class. It doesn’t occur in other chapters, because the people who wrote the book decided that it should be taught in Chapter 14.)

Johnny sees the word, does a few activities and exercises around it, takes a test on it, and, because he studies hard and is a good student, gets a perfect score on the test. There was no washing machine activity, no constant churning of English, just that one exposure in Chapter 14 and the approval of his teacher because of the test result.

One time in class, on a rare day when Jean-Luc’s teacher tried to talk to the class in English (she was afraid to do that because when she she did it they didn’t understand so she didn’t do it very often), she asked Jean-Luc what he did when he walked into a restaurant to order a meal. Struggling mightily, he told her, in really botched language because he wasn’t ready to say it, “EVER time I walk into a restaurant to order a meal, I read the menu.”

All the kids laughed but the teacher did not laugh. She jumped instead on Jean-Luc’s egregious use of the word EVER. She went to the board and wrote the words EVERY TIME on the board, telling the class in French that Jean-Luc SHOULD have said EVERY.

Jean went from his language victory to feeling very stupid in that moment. Instead of celebrating his  sentence, he just felt stupid because he didn’t say the Chapter 14 word right. And he got laughed at.

Not having had her café au lait that day, and hating teaching English anyway, Jean’s teacher, having driven the point home to him that HE WAS WRONG, immediately gave the class a writing assignment, because obviously they had “forgotten” (read “never learned”) everything in Chapter 14 and what was wrong with these kids?

How It Ended

Four years later, the economy back on track, Jean-Luc, now 17, comes over for one year to New York City with his family. Even though he has been studying English for four years, he is very fearful of expressing himself.

The fact is that our boy doesn’t know many words in English except the words “good bye” and “television” because they are all he remembers from his four years of English.

But it is too late to go back and complain to his teacher (that is not done), and so, when he tries to talk to his American high school friends that year, his head lurches forward in a kind of confused shame move, and he mostly avoids contact with the Americans he talks to, especially his teachers.

In America Jean-Luc succeeds in making eye contact and trying to speak English with his more trusted friends, especially when he is out drinking with his friends, which he does a lot because all of his American high school friends drink a lot, but, in general, he learns surprisingly little English.

That is because, even though the language washing machine was running, Jean-Luc, unbeknownst to him, was walking around in New York all that year with a four year old invisible affective muzzle on his face that caused a kind of hammer hold on his desire to get better at English.

There was no clean churning of the washing machine in Jean-Luc’s mind in New York City, and no natural joyous unexpected output. There was only the the invisible muzzle on his face in New York. Jean-Luc’s exchange year was ruined. The invisible muzzle messed up his confidence.

In the first scenario, Jean-Luc learned English, but in the second, he never did learn English. He went back to France and, whenever the topic of languages came up, something felt wrong in him. He said that he studied English for four years in school, and even spent a year in New York City when he was in high school, but he never learned anything. My point here is that teachers who don’t make their instruction comprehensible and interesting not only are ineffective, they destroy dreams.

Once, as an adult, Jean-Luc saw his old English teacher in a restaurant. He went to speak to her. She told him what an excellent student he had been. Looking into her eyes, he saw how tired she was. She said that she had quit teaching not long after Jean-Luc left middle school. They both felt kind of bad for a moment, without really knowing why, and Jean-Luc walked away. His teacher just sat there, feeling unappreciated, wondering what she had done with her life.

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3 thoughts on “The Invisible Muzzle”

  1. What a great analogy. The worst part is Jean-Luc probably would feel as if something was wrong within him. I have experienced this as a student and am forever grateful to the kind native speakers that helped me break through. Still I struggle with some things and my monitor jumps in, but as I read more in Spanish new phrases come out of my mouth without thought. Grammar explanation , although I love it like I would a puzzle, has long lasting consequences and increases self doubt. At least this has been my experience. It is a great day when students communicate with joy instead of worry.

    1. Yes Melissa I was trying to make the point above that the results of being taught with drill and kill do not just have a neutral outcome. They take precious time from people’s lives, and in fact have a strongly deleterious effect on people as you said:

      …Jean-Luc probably would feel as if something was wrong within him…..

      I call that criminal, even if it is not done on purpose. Kind of pedagogical negligence based in pride. I call it serious.

      We’ve been round and round on how to react to this, of course. Our group’s conclusion has been loudly and clearly that if we teach well in our classrooms with CI then that is the best way to deal with such teachers as the one Jean-Luc endured. I’m finally starting to get that. Plus, we have the Bear and the Jackal, magical creatures, to fight anything that we really want to crush.

  2. Quite accurate and I’d like to translate it into French and have some parents here read it. Except for one thing. They are now starting English in Primary school here, so it would be hard to find a 13 year old boy who had never had English. The people teaching English in Primary school are the regular primary teachers who “had English” when they were students with the same teacher you described. So how do you think they teach it?

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