How do we define ‘success’ in language learning? Is it when we learn a certain number of words? Is it when we can speak in full sentences? Is it when we pass an interview? Get a high score on a test? While each of these things are successes in their own right, there is another type of success that often gets overlooked. The success is gaining confidence. I’ve been working with one student who exemplifies this very well.
She is an elementary school student in Hong Kong. Her mother first messaged me saying although her daughter’s language ability and listening comprehension were quite high, she was a very shy child. In our first lesson, the student barely spoke at all. I knew from messaging her mother that the student likely understood most of what I was saying. But when I asked questions, most of the time she didn’t respond at all. Occasionally she would respond, but only with a yes or no answer. The first lessons were challenging to get through.
I messaged her mother to ask about her interests: any TV shows her daughter likes, sports she plays, hobbies she has. The student didn’t have the confidence to tell me about them herself. However, armed with the knowledge of the things she enjoys, I was able to elicit more dialogue from her. She was beginning to answer my questions most of the time, even if just with short answers. This was a big change from the silence I was getting at first. I was sure to praise her for each longer answer she gave.
Still though, for a while I was wondering if what I was doing was even making a difference. Did she even enjoy my lessons? Most of the time she sits in front of the computer with a blank expression. She took weekly lessons with me, and one week I was ill and we had to cancel that lesson. When it came time for the following week’s lesson, she ran up to the camera smiling when her mom called for her. The student was so excited to see me. Even though she didn’t talk much, I could see then that my lessons were beginning to make an impact.
I continued to toy with different lesson styles. I found that playing games with her was more effective than just asking questions. A big breakthrough came when I used the screen sharing function to show her two pictures for a ‘find the differences’ game. If we sat side by side, she may have just pointed at the differences. But being on the computer, she had to use her words to tell me where the differences were. This motivation was enough to get her to talk at length.
I was so shocked! Suddenly she was speaking in full sentences. I finally saw what the mother told me about her ability level. Actually in terms of strictly language, her level was quite high. Confidence was her biggest stumbling block. The motivation of the game was enough to get her to speak, and her enjoyment of succeeding in the game was enough to make her forget her insecurities, even if just for a moment. I made sure to remark, “Wow! Those are great sentences, good job explaining it to me!”
Attempts at small talk at the beginning were still more difficult, although I kept up with it before transitioning into a game for the latter part of the lesson. I continued with different kinds of games. Some examples of games I played include: ‘picture in picture’ games, pictionary-like drawing games, three hint quiz guessing games, and so on. Some may think that video-lessons online would make it difficult to play games, but actually the distance comes to your advantage more often than you would think. All the while, I was sure to give lots of praise for each step that we made.
As she spoke more and more through different games, her confidence began to spill over into the small talk at the beginning, too. And one day she mentioned a new interest of hers that I had no idea about: fishing. As soon as I asked about fishing she exploded with excitement and began explaining to me where she does it, how she learned it, and how it works. I only had to ask a few questions to prompt her to continue speaking if she ran out of things to say, or got stuck. I was so amazed and I was sure to give lots of praise and encouragement for her newfound confidence.
After that day, she has been able to speak more and more. I usually don’t have trouble getting her to speak now. She will respond and offer some information without me having to directly ask. She has become infinitely better as a communicator than when we initially started.
And that’s what language learning is all about, isn’t it? What good is your vocabulary if you don’t have the confidence to use it? What good is your grammar if you aren’t sure enough in yourself to try to make a sentence with it? What good are your test scores if you can’t get yourself to apply that knowledge in the real world?
All of the things I just mentioned are important building blocks to become a good speaker. They have plenty of merit. However, confidence is the foundation upon which good communication is built. In just a few months, to go from almost zero confidence, barely willing to speak, to high confidence, enough to have full blown conversations, is such a feat. I’m so proud of my student for making that progress. And I’m honored that I was able to help her along in that journey.
From Emilie (https://www.italki.com/teacher/6101781)