Are “risk-taking” and “grit” important in a language classroom?

So the other day on Twitter I saw a tweet with the #actfl2015 hashtag that said 

“Discomfort must be your friend if you’re learning a language. S[tudent]s aren’t used to this mindset – it takes time. Struggle is normal.”

I responded by saying that I’d never seen any research indicating that risk-taking, or getting out of one’s “comfort zone” were essential to language acquisition.  I asked for some evidence supporting this claim and got none. 

So, today’s question: do “struggle” or “discomfort” have a place in the second-language classroom?

My answer:  no.  

Alfie Kohn has written about “grit” and notes that when educators (or more often bureaucrats) talk of “grit” they often mean “suck it up, Princess.”  If work is boring, developmentally inappropriate, or meaningless, or if there is too much of it, people are not going to want to do it.  A teacher has two options:  make work more interesting, do-able, kid-friendly, etc, or, as Kohn puts it, to “make sure kids will resist temptation, override their unconstructive impulses, put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do — and keep at it for as long as it takes.”

The danger– other than boring and alienating kids– is that the “grit” argument is basically an excuse for us teachers not to reflect on and change practice.  I should know; I did this for years, telling kids and parents “well Johnny needs to study his verbs more” and other such nonsense.  It never occurred to unthinking me that maybe my methods and I sucked, and that I was telling Johnny to (vainly) try to do the work that I should have, and that Johnny literally couldn’t “learn” his verbs the way I thought he could.

(My former neighbour, a football star turned Socials teacher, did exactly this before retirement to Florida and endless rounds of golf and Coronas: he handed out stupid worksheets, assigned chapter on Monday test on Friday, and routinely told parents “Suzy needs to study more,” not realising (or caring) that the kids needed reading help, questioning, a variety of activities, etc.  I sucked as much as he did; now, I suck slightly less.)

Now, back to struggle.  To the best of my knowledge, there is no research suggesting that language acquisition is “struggle” where “discomfort is your friend.” Stephen Krashen in this well-known clip models a few minutes of language teaching, and notes that language acquisition– if we can understand the message, and are paying attention– is involuntary and effortless.  Indeed, the evidence we have from comprehensible input classrooms is that language acquisition is not much of a struggle at all, and good language instruction allows the students who traditionally don’t do so well– boys, poorer people, the less-literate, many minorities of colour– to do much better than they do in traditional, thematic, grammar and/or output-focused classrooms.

My revelation: last year, of my four top beginners (who could speak fluently and who wrote 850-word, excellent stories at course’s end), two– who I had next semester in English– were absolutely average students in both my and every other class.

So what does this writer mean?  Well, here some thoughts from experienced C.I. teachers about “grit” and “struggle” and “discomfort.”

Reed Riggs wrote: “I think i+1 means it’s a level of challenge much like going on a nice hike or playing a fun game. I don’t know if we want to call it “effortless”, but I like to distinguish between “challenge” and “struggle”. Challenge is where we experience a sense of “flow”, feeling engaged and having fun making new connections. Struggle is being pushed to where it’s not fun anymore, and we continue feeling unsuccessful. I think it’s easy to lose track of how hard we’re pushing learners when the language is already easy for us as teachers, and we don’t have a system for checking, moment to moment, if students need more support.”

Riggs’ last statement is key here: how easy it is for us to forget where the kids are at.  This is why when I train teachers in T.P.R.S., I insist on starting with a German demo.

Terry Waltz researches S.L.A., teaches Mandarin (and has now acquired thirteen languages).  She asks “is there proof that keeping students at the very razor edge of, say, the speed they can deal with benefits acquisition? Actual acquisition? I’m not talking about proficiency or performance. Acquisition.” 

She then said I think language learning should definitely be a very rigorous process. Lots of grit. No pain, no gain. Fortunately, I don’t facilitate language learning, I help people acquire languages.”  

Gerry Wass– who can rock a multi-level classroom like nobody’s business– writes  “our students come to us at very different points on the Mindset spectrum, from fixed (where they avoid taking risks) to open (where their curiosity and belief in their ability to learn is intact). We could also say that they come with a high affective filter if they come with a strong closed mindset. I think that great CI teachers can change the mindsets of their students, but every other class they have may just be reinforcing it. More kid-friendly terms are the Learner Path and the Judger Path, and my students and I have both benefited enormously from building community around this idea. It has allowed me to relax and grow as a teacher because I know they will not be judging my struggles as harshly. I don’t know that master teachers ever have to worry about this, but there are a lot of us who still struggle deeply to balance the vast C.I. skill set so that it truly becomes effortless acquisition.”

In terms of “struggle” and “discomfort,” the writer may be referring to the fact that, once in the messy non-class “real world” of native speakers in France or China or wherever, people are going to struggle and be uncomfortable.  (I’m pretty good at Spanish; I occasionally felt overwhelmed last year in El Salvador.)  If you reflect on your own experiences functioning in a new language, what is the single least-pleasant thing?  I’ll bet you it’s not understanding.  Once you know what somebody is saying– even if you speak very little Mandarin or Swahili– you can use the dictionary, point, use gestures, etc, to get basic stuff done.  But that sinking feeling of “I don’t get it“– if you have that, it feels bad, and nothing is going to get done.

On a recent episode of “Tea With BVP,”  VanPatten said of language classrooms that “we’re not preparing people for specific scenarios in the way we train a doctor to do stitches.  We’re preparing people to cope.”  What VanPatten means here is that we cannot train people for specific situations.  It doesn’t take much variability– a new word, something misunderstood, a situation for which we havn’t “practiced”– to throw us off our game in a new language.

Does this mean students need to feel confused or stressed or uncomfortable in class?  No.  Our job is to get people as ready as they can for the “real world” and that means loading them with as much language as deeply as possible.  And that means loads of comprehensible input, and that is something that need not be a struggle at all.  Both Krashen and Vanpatten have described language acquisition– through comprehensible input– as “effortless.”

Should we train people for the “struggle” and “discomfort” of the real world?  Sure.  I teach the kids basic conversation-repair skills (ask for repetition, rephrase, point and wait, circumlocute, etc).  And I tell them “it feels weird the first time you got to Mexico.” But beyond that, their prep is in hearing loads of comprehensible Spanish…and that need not be uncomfortable or a struggle.

Final zinger:  Terry Waltz read the tweet, and wrote “Yes, language learning is a struggle, and it is difficult.  Fortunately, I don’t ask students to learn a language– I ask them to acquire it.”

So anyway. The writer is wrong when they say “discomfort must be your friend,” at least for picking up a language.  For a teacher, switching methods (e.g. to C.I. from legacy methods) is a bit of a struggle (and can be uncomfortable).  It’s like those medieval pilgrimages, where people ditched everything except the clothes on their back when they started.  We have to ditch the textbook, workbooks, dumb DVDs, etc, and that can be scary.   But language acquisition?  Not so much.

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