Learner or User?

Duncan introduced ‘inner game’ theory in last week’s post which highlights the importance of attitudinal factors underlying effective language learning. If we accept that, like sports coaches, it isn’t enough just to train students to be better speakers without examining the psychological barriers to success, then a primary goal in affective teaching is to address the ‘fear and self-doubt’ that learners may feel tackling a foreign language. As an early step, students might benefit from exploring their feelings and attitudes that help or hinder them in their ‘language lives’; a bit of ‘metacognitive self-awareness raising’. I gave my class this to read and chat about one evening. You could do, too.

What’s your relationship with English? How do you define yourself in this relationship?

We have different names for ourselves depending on what we are doing.  A person walking in the street is called a pedestrian, for example, whereas someone driving a car is a motorist. But what about when you are speaking or listening to English – at work and at home, on holiday, online, on the phone, on TV, in the classroom? How do you define yourself in this part of your life?

There are a number of names you could give yourself. One is ‘non-native English speaker’. It’s estimated that non-native English speakers outnumber native English speakers by approximately  2 to 1, so if you are not from an English-speaking country but you do speak English, you are in a very big majority!

But how useful is it to define yourself in this way, as something you are not? Nowadays English is used all over the world by people of all nationalities with people from other non-English-speaking countries. To say “I’m not a native-speaker” seems irrelevant.

OK, so what about these terms: ‘global native’ or ‘world citizen’? Is English your passport to travel the world? Are you ‘bilingual’ or even a ‘polyglot’? Do you pride yourself in your linguistic skills? An ‘anglophile’, perhaps? Do you love the culture as much as the lingo? Are you a ‘digital native’, who uses English to live a life online? How do you feel about these names? Can you relate to any of them?

Perhaps the most common name people call themselves in relation to their English is this one: ‘English learner’. Which makes sense! After all, a lot of your time with English is probably spent studying it. Your relationship with English may have started in the classroom; books you read in English are mostly textbooks and dictionaries; if you speak much English it’s often with teachers.

But stop and think about this for a second. Is English more something you learn or something you do? Is it a subject to learn like physics and history or is it a skill to use such as cooking or information technology? People don’t often learn to cook in any formal way, we just start making omelettes. They become better at cooking by… well, by cooking!

Also, by calling yourself a learner, aren’t you saying you haven’t really started yet? A learner driver wears his ‘L’ badge as a warning to other drivers, but you don’t need to tell people you can’t speak English very well. Say “Hello” to someone who doesn’t speak your language and you are participating in a community who understand each other and articulate their needs, beliefs and desires to one another with a common language.

It might be useful to compare the way we talk about our English skills with the way we describe our computer skills. You are probably a regular ‘I.T. user’, a person who downloads mp3s, sends emails and surfs the web. You might be an expert programmer or, like me, a basic user, but the distinction isn’t important – the fact that you’re not very fluent with a mouse doesn’t stop you using one. We are all IT users…

Can’t we all just be ‘English users’, too?

(This was a post from Daniel)

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