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Encouraging others to speak

February 18, 2012

This evening my 15 month old daughter decided she wanted to climb up the stairs (our front door opens at the top of a flight of uncarpeted stone stairs leading down to our single level apartment – there is a gate two steps from the bottom which we keep closed so that she cannot climb up unsupervised) and since this is a skill we want her to develop so long as she is safe, I allowed her through the gate and followed her up, a step or two behind. She steadily and speedily climbed to two steps from the top, and began to come down again, backwards as is appropriate at this stage. I encouraged her verbally, however, to climb all the way up to the top step, at which point she noticed the banister, which was barely within her reach. Going for that, she began to fall, and while I caught her before she could hurt herself, she did get rather a fright, so I carried her down again and comforted her. I will, however, be encouraging her to climb the stairs again in the near future, under careful supervision, of course!

What has this to do with language learning, beyond the fact that she understood my verbal encouragements to continue to the top? Well, just as a baby has to be allowed to take some small risks in learning to move about the world, so a language learner needs to feel both enticed and supported to actively use the tongue they are studying. While most of the courage will have to come from the learner, there are ways native and fluent speakers can be helpful, both to child and adult learners. Some ideas of mine, with a focus on older second language learners:

  • Respect the attempt to communicate; be friendly and continue the conversation, if you possibly can. Time and circumstance wait for none of us, but there are people (especially our children) we should make time for, if this is an issue, and it should always be feasible to be polite at least, and enthusiastic at best.
  • Speak more slowly and clearly, where that will help, but don’t make the person feel bad just because you aren’t willing to accommodate them. I have lost count of the times a telephone ‘customer service’ agent or salesperson insisted on speaking (what felt to me like) 10,000 words to the minute and when I couldn’t keep up declared they were transferring me to someone who spoke English. Nine times out of ten, I then converse with their more considerate or just naturally clear-spoken colleague perfectly happily and effectively in Hebrew or French, as appropriate.
  • Don’t rush to change to another mutual language, when someone is making a sincere effort to speak yours. Obviously this will take judgement; where the point is information which needs to be exchanged, a second language user may appreciate an official who speaks their native language, but it is generally polite to ask if they would prefer that. It is also possible to use both languages within a conversation, in many instances.
  • Use careful judgement and always be polite in correcting errors. Obviously there may be ambiguities which need clarification, but especially with (advanced) beginners, don’t risk shutting down their desire to speak by correcting every minor thing. In most cases you will understand what they are trying to say, and would do better to keep the conversation going. They may realise the error themselves, either immediately or later, but if you see a persistent fault (i.e. something that you hear a few times, possibly on more than one occasion) in someone you are acquainted with well enough to think they would appreciate the correction, then quietly (i.e. not in front of a crowd – I am not addressing this post to class-teachers) explain the one or two points where they seem to be going wrong in a friendly and encouraging manner. From what I’ve learned about child language acquisition, however, I wouldn’t bother correcting young children – they’ll work it out in their own time and probably won’t listen to your correction anyhow. (Again, not addressing this to situations which require a qualified speech and language therapist, who will have specific professional advice where appropriate.)

Basically, be the native speaker you want to encounter, and if nothing else, remember your manners!

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